Virtual Vanguard

Conor Mullan from Think Research examines the various solutions and possible applications for remote tower technology both in Europe and further afield.
A little under five years ago I was asked by LFV, the Swedish service provider, to meet in Malmö to help start a SESAR project looking at what we then called Remote and Virtual Tower.
There were four of us in the meeting. Six months later the group numbered ten people from NORACON, Saab and Eurocontrol. The project was up and running but it wasn’t catching the imagination and the project team travelled to Denmark to ‘meet half way’ such was the reluctance to put people to too much trouble for what was, in essence, just another SESAR project.
Fast forward four years and it seems we can’t feed the public’s interest fast enough. Far from being ‘just another project’, Remote Tower has become the hottest of our hot topics. A recent SESAR event in Dublin attracted around 150 worldwide attendees.
A Remote Tower product was the cornerstone of the Saab Sensis offering at both this year’s World ATM Congress and Farnborough International Airshow. My company, Think Research, has had enquiries from air navigation service providers on four continents as people seek to understand more and compete to make history with milestone implementations.
Suddenly a lot of Remote Tower experts have sprung out of the woodwork – it’s a good business to be in! One thing we have noticed over the course of our involvement – especially more recently – is that there is a common perception of Remote Tower and it isn’t always complete.
Through this article I hope to present a few facts, a few clarifications and hopefully a more complete picture of what we mean when we talk about Remote Tower.
Remote or Virtual? Or both?
Before we begin, let’s talk nomenclature. So far, we have Remote Tower, Remote and Virtual Tower (RVT), r-TWR, Remote ATS (RATS), Blended Airspace, Remotely Operated Aerodrome Control, and the rather catchy Remote Provision of ATS. At a high level, they all mean more or less the same. The essence is that air traffic services not just ATC are provided to one or more aerodromes from a location that is not the local aerodrome tower building. So that’s where “remote” comes from. What about the rest?
The public face of Remote Tower is the camera and video screen type solutions making the headlines at present. Those screens and cameras are there because there is a requirement from ICAO to provide ‘a continuous watch on all flight operations on and in the vicinity of an aerodrome as well as vehicles and personnel on the manoeuvring area’. This continuous watch ‘shall be maintained by visual observation’.
People naturally think of cameras and screens. Anyone with a passing interest in A-SMGCS may know that ICAO also states “where visual observation by the aerodrome controller is not possible, or whenever deemed beneficial by the aerodrome controller, the information provided by A-SMGCS may be used to replace visual observation”.
Suddenly it’s not just cameras and screens. In fact, there are various sensors, data capture techniques, surveillance means and visual display solutions that can be used. To use common parlance again, the “virtual” part of the name is now used to refer to a solution that uses non-camera based technologies.
Remote Tower? ATS are provided remotely, perhaps using a camera based solution.
Remote Virtual Tower? ATS are provided remotely using A-SGMCS or other non-camera based solutions.
Mode of Operations
Another principle of Remote Tower is that the services provided – mainly AFIS and ATC – will remain the same, with the method of delivery changing. This is an important clarification as it not only predefines the scope of the services to be provided but also eliminates the need to completely redefine many of the rules, regulations and working methods.
The news at the minute from Sweden and Australia, and the SESAR event in Dublin focused on Remote Tower. What is perhaps less clear is that they only focus on part of the overall concept. The wider Remote Tower concept of operations includes several modes of operations. Each mode of operation can also be applied to ATC of AFIS.
In Remote Tower terms, the controller working position is known as a Remote Tower Module (RTM) and you might have several RTM in a Remote Tower Centre (RTC). The remote provision of ATS to a single aerodrome (commonly known as “Single Remote Tower”) is where service is provided to one aerodrome from one RTM.
“Multiple Remote Tower” is where service is provided to more than one aerodrome at the same time, by a single ATCO/AFISO, from a single RTM. This is the one person to three aerodromes eye-catcher seen in the slick marketing and YouTube videos.
Both of the above modes are typically aimed at low to medium density aerodromes. There is then a third mode of operation which is foreseen for any of the world’s largest airports.
“Remote Contingency Tower” is a temporary remote provision of ATS as a contingency solution when the local Tower is not available.
There are variants of each mode – for example, one RTM can be “switched” from single aerodrome to single aerodrome depending on traffic but really this is still Single Remote Tower just applied differently.
Lovely. But why?
So we know what it is, but why? Why are we suddenly interested in Remote Tower?
The business case behind Remote Towers mirrors the concept itself. There is a common core, but several different variations beyond the core. The primary driver behind Remote Tower is cost efficiency. For various reasons which I will explain later, the remote provision of ATS can (not will, but can) be more cost effective than local provision of ATS. Conveniently, the various projects around the world can be used to loosely categorise each of these variants.
In Scandinavia LFV in Sweden and Avinor in Norway are leading the way with Remote Tower implementation. Both these ANSP are acting in order to reduce costs at small aerodromes where traffic volume is just not enough to sustain these aerodromes financially. Remote Tower in these cases will help contribute to a lower ATS cost. Work done to date shows Single Remote Tower can provide some cost efficiencies through centralisation of resources and standardisation of equipment and training. Multiple Remote Tower should provide even greater efficiencies in addition through more efficient use of resources (greater flight hours per ATCO/AFISO).
In Australasia the needs are different but the driver is still the same. Single Remote Tower is currently being trialled in Alice Springs and Airways New Zealand also has a project underway to investigate the application of Remote Tower technology into its ATC services. In both cases Remote Tower is seen as a more cost effective solution to their particular ATS needs. In Australia there is a need to provide ATS to very remote places which have no ATS provision at present.
This need may not even be permanent with a large percentage of traffic at the target locations being driven by the mining trade which moves from place to place. It is too expensive to build a new tower building each time and provide local resource. In New Zealand there is a need to replace some current tower buildings. Due to ever more stringent earthquake-resistance requirements the cost of replacing these tower buildings has increased beyond the point where it is financially viable to do so.
ATS must be provided, but it is too expensive to build or replace a traditional tower. Remote Tower in these cases (Single or Multiple) is more cost effective as the capital expenditure on a remote facility is less than the capital expenditure on a physical local tower. Once built, the operating efficiencies seen in Scandinavia should also be seen here
In the US, there is a wish to provide ATS to what are called Non-Towered Airports (NTA). Their blended airspace concept promotes the use of Remote Tower technologies to provide increased safety and capacity at these NTA again without having to build and staff a local tower.
In the UK, a remote tower has existed for quite a few years but is thankfully not being used. Why thankfully? Because it is an A-SMGCS based Remote Contingency Tower for Heathrow Airport. The NATS Virtual Contingency Facility entered into service in 2009 as a means to provide some level of continuous service should the main control tower not be usable. Rather than provide a saving on a day basis, the facility exists to maintain capacity and minimise losses in the event of an emergency thus providing continuity of service at one of the world’s busiest international aerodromes. Other Remote Contingency Solutions are in development with Swedavia trials last year and next year, and other major intercontinental hubs also looking at Remote Tower as means to providing contingency cover.
Great. Where can I get it?
To date, there are three main players in the commercial system market. Saab, Frequentis and Searidge. Naturally other industrial suppliers are seeking market entry but these three have had the head start.
Saab’s solution is based around very high definition direct camera video capture and reproduction, with various advanced features overlaid onto the main visual reproduction. Saab has worked mainly with LFV to try and reproduce, and improve upon, the familiar out-the-widow view controllers are familiar with.
Frequentis’ solution is a little different. Rather than simply reproduce today’s view, Frequentis have focused on an Infrared camera based solution offering enhanced visibility in low light and lower bandwidth requirements for data relay.
Searidge Technologies have a long standing association with video technologies for apron control and blind spot elimination. Having had success with those existing solutions, they are now expanding their systems to provide a more complete tower ATS. Like Saab, it is based on high definition camera and screens and also has the ability to add their decision support tool kits on top.
As first to market it is fair to say that Saab’s solution is most mature – it will be operational before the others – but Frequentis and Searidge are aggressively competing.
What’s the status?
LFV will soon have what is being called the world’s first operational Remote Tower providing ATS to Örnsköldsvik from a Remote Tower Centre in Sundsvall. This uses a Saab system to provide Single Remote Tower services. As previously mentioned NATS might point out that technically they have had a Remote Tower facility since 2009, it’s just that they haven’t had to use it.
What is certain, is now that approval for permanent Remote ATS is about to be granted, and with interest rising, more are sure to follow. Both EUROCAE and EASA have set up working groups to advise on the impending standards and rule making processes. Air navigation service providers from Australia to the Bahamas are at various stages of investigation. In Dublin, Eamonn Brennan rousingly declared that the Irish Aviation Authority will implement Remote Tower in the next two years.
Dubai, New Zealand, Belgium, Romania…. the list goes on.
My guess is that we will see another few Single Remote Towers in the next couple of years. Take your pick from a long list of interested parties but Avinor are currently most advanced. The research for Multiple Remote Tower is running about three years behind that of Single so it will be a while before we see that in operations.
Conor MullanMeanwhile, expect Remote Contingency Tower to be the second mode to enter operations. The technology is almost ready (the technology and configuration is very similar to that used in Single Remote Tower) and importantly, the financial muscle is there with the major hubs being the likely purchasers.
All eyes now look to Sweden and Sundsvall. Unlike five years ago, they don’t have to convince us to meet them half way – form an orderly queue at the RTC door please.
Conor Mullan is managing director at Think Research
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