Remote and digital technology for today's and tomorrow's airports

Air traffic control has looked much the same since the Second World War. High towers, various technical systems and binoculars have been important elements of an activity which, has been characterised by stringent safety requirements and regulatory control.

However the need for cost-efficiency is growing, and many small airports in sparsely populated areas are threatened with closure. In a small airport air traffic control can account for 30-40 per cent of the operating costs. This was the reason why Saab and LFV started to collaborate in 2006 in the search for a more efficient way of handling air traffic control in Sweden.

The air navigation servive provider (ANSP) challenges

Many airports of today are facing financial challenges, and are looking for means to better utilize resources, but at the same time increase service level for their customers.

Large airports are aiming for higher, and more reliable, traffic throughput to the greatest extent possible, independent of weather conditions. With our technology and operational set-up, we will enable reliable operations for large airports during changing conditions in traffic patterns and weather.

Smaller airports are to a large extent experiencing financial challenges, where costs have to be allocated to the available, and frequently limited, air traffic movements. With our technology and operational set-up, costs can be shared with other airports and at the same time a higher level of flexibility can be achieved. 

The flexibility and the fact that an air traffic controller no longer has to be at the airport, means resources can be remote or localised at a central point. 

Multiple airports can be managed either simultaneously or by switching between them based on the needs at the time. Towers can be mobile and deployable to address event driven demands caused by everything from natural disasters to military deployments. 

“Today even large airports may need to invest in a remote tower system as contingency and other digital services linked to air traffic management. The remote tower is driving the business transformation within the industry,” says Niclas Gustavsson, Vice President of Business Development and Governmental Affairs. 

First operations in northern Sweden

Since April 2015 the air traffic control tower at Örnsköldsvik airport in northern Sweden has been empty with the curtains drawn. There are cameras and sensors located at the airport to record what is happening instead. A data network is used to digitally transfer images and data to a new facility in Sundsvall, where the air traffic controllers  manage Örnsköldvik airport at a distance. Today the airport in Sundsvall is also remotely controlled, and next to go would be Linköping in 2017.

The air traffic controllers are key

When implementing the remote air traffic control technology the engineers were assisted by the air traffic controllers who would use the system in practice.

The air traffic controllers were involved at an early stage of the development to provide feedback to the Saab engineers regarding the practical design of the remote air traffic control technology. This covered everything from the flow of information, to the screens, to more basic problems that had to be resolved from a technical perspective.  Since a fly on the camera lens becomes massive on the display in front of the air traffic controller, a specially constructed metal camera housing was developed, which keeps animal life at bay and protects the equipment.

“We have had open cooperation in which we have worked with usability analysts and product designers on the development of the system to ensure there is a smooth interaction between man, method and technology,” says Erik Bäckman, air traffic controller and Head of the Remote Tower Centre in Sundsvall.

The implementation was carried out with the aid of passive validation, which means that a number of air traffic controllers first ran the new technology as a shadow operation in parallel with the existing system. For Sundsvall and Linköping (second and third airport) we use a new implementation plan to speed up the process. It's diveded in four phases and each phase must carefully be planned and documented. It should not take more than 3-6 months to make the tranformation.

“They could listen in on the radio and telephone conversations of the duty air traffic controller, and entered data just as they would if they were working ‘live’. They provided constant feedback so that problems could be rectified and tools refined before the next stage,” Bäckman explains.

The system was ‘live’ tested during a temporary operational approval period between October 2013 and February 2014. An air traffic controller had to remain on site in Örnsköldsvik throughout this period in order to intervene if required.

“But it was never needed. During the test period we informed the airport and the airlines concerned that we would control traffic partly from the on-site tower and partly remotely from Sundsvall, but we didn’t tell them exactly when. They didn’t notice any difference, which was the best feedback we could get,” Bäckman says.

There is considerable potential for connecting several airports to the remote air traffic control centre. 

“The transition took place gradually so that more and more air traffic control was moved from the local tower to us. By summer 2017 I expect to have 16 air traffic controllers on site providing a remote service for three airports,” he says.

The new working method has improved working conditions, since several air traffic controllers now sit and work alongside one another. In smaller towns air traffic control work is otherwise often carried out alone.

“Socially of course it’s a major readjustment for staff moving to another town, but there’s a lot to be gained in terms of the working environment. You have more colleagues and the opportunity to broaden your skills,” Bäckman says. 

The camera technology in the new remote-controlled tower makes it possible to cope with difficult light conditions much better than before. The system adjusts the images automatically when there is direct sunlight or there are snow reflections so that it is possible to follow an aircraft that is climbing skywards without being dazzled. The technology also allows you to zoom in and enhance the image in order to pick out details. Different types of data can be integrated into the same view on the screen, such as weather and wind force data, which provides a better overview. 

Remote air traffic control systems are provided by Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions, which was formed in September 2016 and is jointly owned by Saab and LFV. But this is only part of the offering.

“By combining LFV’s unique operational experience with Saab’s world class technology solutions, we can drive the whole process forward from planning to commissioning remote air traffic control. We offer smart digital solutions so that data can be used in several locations to streamline traffic flows around an airport, both in the air and on the ground,” says Johan Klintberg, CEO of Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions. “As we are pioneering digital air traffic management, the market has shown large interest in our products and services.” 

Saab´s Digital Tower Solutions represents the business transformation in air traffic control, which will open up new opportunities to existing and new stakeholders just by making data available. Ultimately, it will enhance the passengers´ travel experience due to smoother and efficient management of air traffic control and airport operations.