Saab: 'Remote Tower' Concept Gaining Wider Acceptance

 - July 17, 2014, 8:33 AM
Per Ahl, Saab vice president of air traffic management, explains the company's remote tower system during the Farnborough Airshow. (Photo: Bill Carey)

Countries including Sweden, Norway, Ireland, Switzerland, Germany, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand have an interest in using “remote towers” to control air traffic, according to Saab, which is already certifying one such facility in Sweden. The company is also competing to provide systems for three airports in Germany and up to 75 in Norway.

At a briefing at the Farnborough Airshow on July 17, Per Ahl, Saab vice president of air traffic management, said the company is seeing increasing acceptance of the remote tower concept, which combines the ATC functions of remote or multiple smaller airports and heliports at one centrally located remote tower center (RTC). Cameras and sensors installed at the airports feed imagery and information to controllers at the RTC, where it is streamed live on LCD displays. A Saab system configuration consists of fixed cameras, pan/tilt/zoom optical and infrared cameras, a signal light gun to direct pilots and an acoustic sensor. Frequentis of Austria and Nav Canada also supply systems.

Ahl said controllers initially resisted but have now come to see the benefits of the concept, which could potentially eliminate controller positions at outlying airports. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association that represents U.S. controllers have been to Sweden to observe the system, and plan to return, he said. Last year, when the FAA threatened to close more than half of the country’s 251 federal contract towers due to budget cuts, Saab was inundated with calls from people in the U.S. inquiring about remote towers. “It’s not a technology issue any more; it’s a change of mindset, (to) have all of the actors on board,” he said.

Norway, which has installed a remote tower system for the Værøy Island Heliport, has issued a tender for systems to cover 75 airports—more than in the country. Ahl suggested air navigation service providers could provide traffic services outside national boundaries. “Suddenly you can sit in one country and control the tower in another country,” he said. “There are no physical barriers.”

The Swedish Transport Agency approved technical and operational procedures Sweden’s air navigation service provider LFV will use to operate the world’s first “remote tower,” Saab announced in June. This fall, controllers at the Sundsvall Remote Tower Center will begin managing takeoffs and landings at Örnsköldsvik Airport, 62 miles distant. Late last year, Saab has also installed a remote-tower system in Adelaide, Australia, to conduct a "non-operational evaluation" of controlling movements at Alice Springs Airport, 1,500 km (932 miles) distant.