ATC Goes Eyes Off

Himani Parekh / Staff Reporter

Imagine a major airport without its iconic air traffic control tower. Imagine flying out of an airport knowing that the voice telling you where to taxi, which heading to fly, and when to take off is originating from a control center several miles away from the airport. This could be the future of air traffic control.

On Monday, Nov. 3, the Swedish Transport Agency approved Luftfatsverket, Swedish Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP) and the Saab-developed Remote Tower Center in Sundsvall to control air traffic at Örnskölsvik Airport. Situated 61 miles from the airport, the Remote Tower Center (RTC) will receive information about flight operations from a medley of sensors and cameras, including High Definition and Pan-Tilt-Zoom cameras, surveillance and meteorological sensors, microphones, and light signal guns; the data from these devices will allow air traffic controllers to monitor and control aircraft from the off-site location, potentially with increased effectiveness since the devices can provide information beyond the capabilities of the naked human eye, especially for  poor weather operations. Consequently, the system appeals to larger airport operations not only as a possible replacement for towers that are no longer ideally situated but also as back-up to existing operations and emergency operations. At the moment, the goal is to combine the air traffic operations of several smaller controlled airports, such as Örnskölsvik Airport, into a handful of Remote Tower Centers.

The air traffic controller plays a large role in maintaining safe fight operations. Thus, questions of security and safety naturally arise with the realization that the controller can no longer see the aircraft and that the information’s accuracy is reliant on a technological system. However, Saab assures that the data streaming into the RTC is protected securely against  hackers and that a malfunction in the devices would be covered by the overlap of other sensors and cameras or could be handled in much the same way as current low visibility operations.

For air traffic service providers such as ANSP, the consolidation of operations would result in a significant reduction of cost since smaller airports would no longer need individual towers. Thus, the cost of operating the building and the cost of employing so many air traffic controllers would be eliminated. Discussion of the long-term effect of this change on the employment of air traffic controllers, however, is curiously absent.