Imagine ATC With No People

 - July 9, 2012, 3:03 PM

The U.S. contract tower program is designed to provide ATC service at some 250 airports for considerably less cost than at locations where the FAA runs the facilities. But sometimes even a traditional contract tower can cost too much. Melbourne, Fla.-based Quadrex thinks it might have a solution in the wings. Quadrex president, Dr. Dave Byers, said, “I had a brainstorm after reading a number of ATC research papers. I saw technology converging that could help and wondered about a tower that could run automatically, with almost no human input.” Byers told AIN he imagines using an X-band radar feeding plotting and movement data into a yet-to-be-designed “black box” for analysis. He believes the new system could be built for as little as $1 million a copy, versus a traditional contract tower with live controllers that can cost more than $500,000 to operate annually. The new unpopulated ATC system would issue aural warnings at Class D airports on the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF), alerts that would call pilots’ attention to approaching traffic they might otherwise miss. “Imagine a J-3 Cub tooling around an airport with an inbound jet,” Byers explained. “With no transponder on the Cub, the jet’s Tcas would normally never see the threat.” Byers also said, “This is not a remote-control tower where all the data is sent somewhere else. This is also not a NextGen add-on.” But he does imagine the system will recognize an impending overload and ask a remotely located operator for occasional help.

“Right now, the key question is what the FAA thinks of the idea,” Byers told AIN. The airport manager at Beckley Airport (BKW) in W.Va. thought enough of the auto-tower idea recently to request a proposal from Quadrex about bringing such a system to fruition. “Right now, we’re at the research level and Beckley is our test bed,” cautions Byers. “And like any other research, we might find out that this concept simply doesn’t work.” Byers hopes to convince the FAA and a handful of private vendors that scarce research dollars would be well spent on this project. Quadrex’s proposal to Beckley is due in late September.