Happy landings

Saab is taking part in a pilot project with remote tower technology at a busy airport in Virginia. The potential market for this technology is huge.

A pilot project at an airport near Washington, D.C., is demonstrating how Saab’s remote tower technology can provide local air traffic control without all the expenses of a conventional tower. While large airports have towers staffed with air traffic controllers, the vast majority of US airports have no towers at all. These are mostly smaller airports, with only a few take-offs and landings per day.

At these thousands of uncontrolled, or ‘non-towered’, airports, pilots are essentially on their own when taking off and landing. They can try to communicate with one another by radio, but they always have to keep a close eye on everything around them; there are no controllers helping them to avoid collisions in the air or on the ground.

“It gets kind of challenging,” says Matt Massiano, director of business development at Saab Sensis and himself a private pilot. “In the US there are roughly 5,000 public-use airports that are uncontrolled and have a paved runway. So those are 5,000 locations that pilots can freely fly to and from in all kinds of weather.”

Saab has already introduced remote tower technology in Sweden. Ireland is on the way, and other tests have been conducted in Norway and Australia. The latest pilot project at Leesburg, Virginia, is the first in the United States.

Leesburg Executive Airport is a general aviation airport about 35 miles from Washington. It is a designated reliever airport for Dulles International, 10 miles to the southeast.

The Saab system in the pilot project uses 14 high-definition cameras to relay visual images of both the ground surface and the surrounding airspace. Other sensors provide information on weather conditions, while microphones capture acoustic information such as the sounds of aircraft engines. All this data can be conveyed to air traffic controllers elsewhere, who can use it to remotely control take-offs and landings.

Saab chose Leesburg as the candidate airport in cooperation with the public-private aviation research corporation Virginia SATSLab (VSATS). VSATS also provides technical expertise in air traffic management to complement Saab’s own staff. 

Keith McCrea, the executive director of VSATS, sees the remote tower project as having considerable potential to bring air traffic control to airports that would never have it otherwise.

“For lower- to medium-density traffic airports, it gives airport planners an interesting augmentation to their existing tools,” McCrea says. “Remote tower technology could bring active air traffic control to airports that don’t have enough traffic to justify the expense of building a tower.”

Airport Manager Scott Coffman says Leesburg has about 100,000 take-offs and landings every year and 250 aircraft are based there. The remote tower system is currently being tested at the airport, and the Federal Aviation Administration is sending air traffic controllers from around the country to evaluate the system there.

“They’re looking at traffic, listening to the radio, trying to determine if the system allows them to do their job in the normal manner,” Coffman says. “We want to do a live test of the system during spring or summer 2016, in which the air traffic controllers are controlling and directing traffic.”

Ultimately, says Coffman, the system could allow controllers to work remotely from other locations. “The benefit of the system is having more than one airport being controlled from a central location,” he says. “That’s when you start to see manpower benefits, with one manager overseeing two or three airports rather than just one. Another benefit is that controllers can be cross-trained on different airports.”

While that might sound like the technology will put some jobs in danger, the organisation that represents more than 14,000 US air traffic controllers doesn’t see it that way.

“We support the testing of the remote towers,” says Dale Wright, Director of Safety and Technology at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “If it is successful, we actually see it as a way to increase the number of jobs, because the technology would be put into airports that currently do not have a control tower, like Leesburg.”