Planned ATC Consolidation Will Leave Some Towers Unmanned

 - August 2, 2012, 2:15 AM

The concept isn’t new. In fact, one could call it a logical extension of development work that originated with Saab in Sweden in the mid-2000s, which showed the economic potential of datalinking various sensors at an unmanned airport to controllers at a distant air traffic monitoring and control center. Such a center could handle a number of small airports that had relatively few arrivals and departures but that still needed personnel to maintain a monitoring watch. It would also allow an airport to extend its operating hours without requiring extra staff and would provide a continuing watch outside those hours.

Last year Saab became Saab Sensis, following Saab’s acquisition of the Syracuse, N.Y. manufacturer of radar, multilateration and ASDE-X equipment, which is currently engaged in major control tower upgrades for Airservices Australia.

In the Saab Sensis r-Tower (r for remote), several different remote sensors are located with a set of high-definition cameras that can cover the full 360-degree view around the airport, the airport surface and the local airspace. The cameras provide the distant control center with a panoramic picture, replicating what a former controller at the airport would have seen. Supplementing the panoramic cameras is a pan/tilt/zoom camera that the center controller can independently direct at targets of interest at the airport, such as aircraft on approach, vehicle movements and other activities, which then appear on a separate display or can be incorporated into the panorama. If needed, targets of interest can be labeled or automatically tracked for rapid re-acquisition and, in low visibility, electronically enhanced via infrared and motion detectors.

The center controller obtains datalinked weather directly from airport sensors and can remotely operate other services such as lights, navigation aids, signal lights, emergency alarms and so on. Throughout these activities, the controller is in radio contact with air and surface traffic at the airport, making his or her location immaterial.

In turn, the control center can feed the airport data into the center’s advanced radar, flight and information data processing systems, electronic flight strip units and other applications. There is no stated upper limit to the number of airports that a center can handle, which could depend on each remote airport’s traffic levels. However, the concept is flexible enough for contingency installation as a backup to large airport control facilities

Saab Sensis has several r-Tower systems in operational trials, in Alice Springs, Australia (datalinked to Adelaide, 1,000 miles away), in Sweden and in Norway, where system validation for Sesar (Europe’s NextGen equivalent) is expected.