17 Mar 2009 Spotlight

Saab Demonstrates 'Remote Tower' Concept

SAAB Group and LFV, the Swedish ANSP, give live demonstration of their ‘remote tower’ concept at Malmo airport, Sweden.
On the 5th March 2009 SAAB Group and LFV, the Swedish ANSP, gave a live demonstration of their ‘remote tower’ concept, at Malmo airport, Sweden.

In the demonstration to a guest audience of key industry players and the media, a Swedish Coastguard aircraft was directed to take off from Angelholm airport by a controller based in a room at Malmo airport, some 100km away. Observing on a panoramic video screen linked to 9 high-resolution cameras mounted on the control tower at Angelholm, the controller was able to watch the aircraft circle the airfield and was then direct it in to land. The whole process was conducted remotely, with only a 1 second delay between the live event and the display on the screen, and without the need to have anyone present at the airfield itself (although at this experimental stage the Tower is still manned as a backup).

Thomas Allard, CEO of LFV, the Swedish ANSP, explained that Sweden was particularly suited to this technology as it has a large number of isolated airfields with relatively low traffic volumes. The cost of maintaining an ATCO presence at each of these was high, and often the controllers could feel isolated. The benefits from being able to control airfields remotely had therefore been clear to LFV, and Saab had been the only company prepared to make the speculative investment in the technology to see if it could work.

After the demonstration, the guests were given a tour of the facility where they were able to view the system in action. Eva Ellerstrand, the ATCO who controlled the flight, was happy to answer any questions. She said that she was confident that she had control of the environment and that the cameras gave her considerable flexibility. For example, one of the cameras has a powerful zoom capability to replicate the ATCO’s own binoculars. Eva explained that there had already been several improvements since the system was first used, particularly with regard to the ‘smoothness’ of the video. She found the screen resolution acceptable but pointed out that the video screen loses the element of three-dimensional vision that exists with the naked eye. However, the test period so far had shown no major problems with this situation, and a planned upgrade to enable the cameras to track and label aircraft on the screen would further enhance the controllers situational awareness.

While an undoubted success, the principle of a remote tower will continue to attract a great deal of discussion and debate. The project is only at the start of a 3-year ‘proof-of concept’ stage, but there is no doubt that LFV intends to push ahead, since it offers such clear benefits for their far-slung airports and airfields. Crucially, they have a regulator that is willing to allow them to progress the technique. Certain aspects of the technology, particularly the forthcoming ability to track and label objects, may well end up having a wider application than the remote tower concept itself. There remains considerable technological and logistical challenges, though Saab and LFV are confident their testing programme will address these. More widely, there are psychological and regulatory hurdles to overcome before we see this rolled out as an option at larger airports, and of course workforce acceptance will be crucial.

Nevertheless, in a world where increasing aviation connectivity is being sought, but the costs of traditional ATM systems is still high, Saab and LFV might just have pointed the way to the future.
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