Airspace Q4 2018: RTC in Germany: first international airport to be operational soon

17 December 2018

Klaus-Dieter Scheurle, CEO, DFS Deutsche Flugsicherung GmbH, explains how and why DFS chose to implement digital tower technology.

Remote tower control will become reality in Germany in late 2018. The tower at Saarbrücken International Airport will soon be unstaffed. Air traffic controllers will handle traffic from the Remote Tower Centre (RTC) in Leipzig, more than 400 kilometres away.

With around 15,300 aircraft movements per year, Saarbrücken will be by far the largest airport in the world to be controlled remotely in regular operations. DFS chose Saarbrücken to start with, because of the manageable number of flight movements and because the old tower cab had to be replaced soon, which would have cost many millions of euros. Instead of replacing it, we decided on RTC.

The complete project comprises the airports of Saarbrücken, Erfurt and Dresden. Erfurt, which has a similar number of aircraft movements as Saarbrücken, will be the second airport to be added to the Remote Tower Centre. This will take place approximately one year after Saarbrücken. Dresden has more than twice as many flights as the other two airports – in 2017 there were 36,480 movements – and operates a lot of mixed traffic. It is planned to be the third airport to be remotely operated.

An extension of the project to other single runway airports may be conceivable in the future. These are some of the smaller airports among the 16 international airports controlled by DFS, which have a similar layout.

A great view

Our system is characterised by the fact that the working position in the RTC has been developed according to the needs of out-of-the-window-view. On the other hand, we did not change the operational concept and procedures so our customers will not see any difference at RTC-operated airports.

The RTC controllers will work with the advanced ATS systems, developed by DFS, for situational awareness (radar), flight data processing, weather and information display and others. Completely new is the Frequentis system, which reproduces the out-of-the-window-view; instead of looking through the tower window, the controller looks at a panoramic view on five screens. Whereas in the tower the controller turns their head to right or left to get an overview, in the RTC the controller pans the camera with a mouse in the desired direction. The controller can switch the image between normal (full HD) and infrared vision.

The image is reproduced by a 360-degree colour video camera system and a 360-degree infrared camera. The automatic object recognition and tracking in the panorama display is very accurate. The system provides the controllers with additional optical information, which is superior to the conventional look out of the tower.

In addition, there are two pan-tilt-zoom cameras. The zoom function replaces the previous option of using binoculars. It provides thirty times magnification in colour and twenty-four times magnification in infrared.

The entire camera system is heated and equipped with an automatic cleaning system, so the cameras will not fog up, get dirty or iced up.

For data transmission, we use redundant, exclusive data networks that we had already so we only had to expand the bandwidth.

The benefits of RTC

RTC increases efficiency and reduces costs –decisive factors in air traffic management.

Our remote tower controllers will be cross-trained and authorised for the three designated airports. Maintenance and repair costs are reduced because the systems are bundled at one location. In this way, we can reduce the number of staff and increase the flexibility and efficiency of shift scheduling.

For the controllers, the job will become more attractive, digital and modern. And it offers greater variety than is the case today at similar medium-sized single-runway locations.

Of course, there are challenges. One was to find a system for the out-of-the-window-view that met our requirements in terms of performance, flexibility, quality and safety.

The main challenge, however, was certainly the introduction of a fundamentally new working environment. Even though the feasibility of the RTC project had already been demonstrated in 2012 by a Human Factors Study together with the German Aerospace Center (DLR), we still had to deal with the change process.

Remote tower control is a paradigm shift in air traffic control. With it, we are taking the first step into a new world that belongs to the digital future.

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