Are physical towers dead?

An airport tower


Remote towers may be all the rage, but classical physical towers are set to continue in enhanced digital form.

Much has been written about remote towers in previous years – an attractive option for regional airports to have their air traffic services (ATS) provided at a lower cost from another location via a remote tower service provider. 

So do remote towers sound the death knell for physical control towers? Almost certainly not. A quiet revolution is underway with a new tower concept – the digital tower. Powering this digital tower transformation are electronic strips with video overlays and data analytics, providing air traffic controllers (ATCOs) with a modernised working environment that embeds safety and productivity tools.

Leading the way

Heathrow and Singapore are harnessing the video capability of remote tower technology and powerful data analytics to provide day, night and all-visibility capabilities with predictive tools supporting high-performance runway operations.

Although still in the prototype test phase, work at both airports is developing on-site, potentially facilitating a quick transition into operational service.

Building future solutions

Through the Single European Sky ATM research (SESAR) project, EUROCONTROL is busy researching digital towers’ potential to integrate data and systems, consolidating key services through a single-screen display system accessible through touch-sensitive or simple point-and-click input devices.

This makes flight plan and second level information immediately available when needed to inform controllers, who can easily update the system with strategic and tactical info. The approach resembles that of a modern cockpit, with layers of information available to the pilot on demand, rather than cluttered multiple displays, each dedicated to a single application.

Yet the real wizardry is being able to translate data into graphical or enhanced intuitive images that support controllers’ decision-making, and enable them to achieve their primary safety and separation tasks. These new decision-support tools can help detect ‘runway clear’, predicting the separation distance from the leading aircraft’s runway exit and the following aircraft’s time over the runway threshold.

The future, today

RETINA, a SESAR project, has shown how synthetic vision can enhance a controller’s traffic awareness under poor visibility conditions. RETINA manages to support seamless operations while at the same time maintaining throughput, even under very challenging conditions. RETINA has also demonstrated the value of augmented reality with routing overlays to display preferential conflict-free routing options.

One opportunity will be the integration of A-SMGCS routing, guidance and controller safety nets into digitally enhanced displays, presenting controllers with external views on large single displays together with control information overlaid, and helping them work with an “out of the window” view, ensuring maximum situation awareness in all visibility conditions.

Integrating remote tower camera technology into physical towers will reduce the need for secondary towers, while also illuminating aerodrome blind spots.

Leading the way on augmenting air traffic control

Leading the way on augmenting air traffic control

What’s more, recognition technology will permit tracking, zooming and monitoring of challenging situations including drone incursions.

In short, digital towers offer a new world for physical towers, which look set to continue alongside their “remote” cousins.

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