Fortune Favours

James Hanson draws on his experience supporting service providers in the procurement and safety assessment of remote towers to consider the challenges and rewards.
Air traffic management is a conservative industry so when something comes along that threatens the established way of doing things it is usually met with, to put it mildly, cautious scepticism.
But when that something is in the rare position of being beneficial for air navigation service providers (ANSPs), airlines and airports, then we should not be afraid to challenge the status quo.
The ‘multiple’ remote towers concept is one such revolutionary change.
The multiple remote tower concept, or multi-tower concept as I will refer to it from now on, challenges the current ATC tower concept by enabling a controller to remotely provide air traffic services (ATS) to multiple aerodromes in parallel – in a one-to-many relationship of multiple airports to one ‘remote tower module’ or RTM. A controller could thus have the ability to control two or more airports from a single working position, most likely located nowhere near either airport.
The prize on offer is that through spreading service provision across multiple airports, cost is reduced, for each individual airport and overall for the ATS provider. This is on top of the potential cost savings from replacing the tower with sensors. Furthermore, in the same way that an area control centre (ACC) is designed to manage multiple airspace sectors from a single location, a remote tower centre can be built to operate multiple airport towers from only a few remote modules.
Each module could be configured to a common standard in order to realise further savings through economies of scale, such as reduced through-life costs in maintenance and training. Cost savings could then be passed onto the airports and airlines. This offers a potential lifeline for smaller airports where the traffic numbers are insufficient to cover costs – 75 per cent of EU airports with less than 1 million passengers are loss-making according to ACI Economics Report 2013.
The notion of ‘ATC on demand’ also becomes possible to match ATC services provision to traffic demand. This could expand the market for ATC services to airports that currently can’t afford to offer them. As for ANSPs, they are able to offer services at a more competitive cost, and potentially across borders to an increasingly liberalised market – enabled simply through a data connection to the airport.

Remote Tower Technology: Searidge Technologies With pic: Searidge.jpg Pic caption: The Searidge Advanced Remote Tower Platform, compliant with next generation 4K/UHD imaging technology As the first single site remote towers become operational during the next six to 18 months, air navigation service providers (ANSP) will be testing and refining the multi-site concept of remote tower operations, and ultimately new viable concepts will emerge through this process.  A single air traffic controller will be tasked with maintaining situational awareness as per ICAO document 4444 and providing ATC services at multiple aerodromes remotely from a single Controller Working Position (CWP).  During the transition to remote tower operations and ultimately multi-site remote operations, ANSPs will be tackling a slew of challenges including regulator approval and establishing processes and procedures to ensure safety and service levels are maintained or increased.  In order to address these challenges, service providers will be modifying their concepts of tower operations by defining new procedures, roles, tasks, flight sequencing/scheduling and staff re-organization. One of the biggest challenges will be the transition of the working environment from a glass tower to a digital one and the ability for a single controller to provide service to multiple aerodromes.  Technology will take on an important role in enabling controllers to perform their duties safely and efficiently. In addition to using existing ATM and ATC tools such as electronic flight strips, surveillance systems, and new intelligent-video based applications, the remote tower system’s Human Machine Interface (HMI) will become the primary tool to enable the multi-site remote tower concept to be realised; as it will help address the strains on human performance in the RT environment, enhance the user’s situational awareness, and provide the flexibility for efficient implementation of new staffing and procedural concepts. Currently Searidge Technologies is supporting several ANSPs in the process of implementing remote tower solutions that are quite unique from one another in terms of aerodrome size, number of aerodromes and concept of operations.  Out The Window These implementations range from multiple small-regional aerodromes controlled from a single remote tower centre (RTC), to single large international airport controlled from a RTC (with multiple working positions), and small-regional sized airports where controllers would be providing service locally, via glass out-the-window (OTW) view, and remotely via digital OTW where the HMI is located in an operational tower cab.  A great deal of Importance is put on the user, the tools/surveillance provided to the user, and how the system interaction will enable the controller to perform their tasks with confidence and with the least amount of strain.  ANSPs adopting RTS must ensure the technology has the capability to easily adapt and evolve during the implementation process. As such, technology vendors should be providing features that offer flexibility to an ASNP to display video on one screen, two screens or a video wall, integrate information overlays and data, and enable the control of collapsing and expanding the HMI to accommodate procedures associated with shift-changes and increased volumes.  Alleviation of construction and maintenance of brick and mortar towers, optimisation of human capital, and aggregation and maintenance of systems in centralised remote tower centres are driving the business case for remote towers today.   The concept of multi-site remote tower operations remains the golden egg that will provide true economy of scale benefits, making the RTS concept that much more lucrative to implement.  The human factors challenges that leading ANSPs will be faced with during initial implementations of multi-site operations are not entirely known today, as new, unique hurdles will arise at each site. Staff and procedure re-organisation will be necessary to realise the concept and technology will take on an even more important role in the process.  A remote tower platform that will be implemented will need to posses the versatility and modularity to grow and evolve with the needs of the service providers. Most importantly, the state of the technology is advanced enough, however ANSPs interested in successfully implementing any type of RTS will need to engage their controller community and regulatory peers, and build flexibility into any implementation plan to ensure that changing demands are constantly addressed.
Searidge Technologies As the first single site remote towers become operational during the next six to 18 months, air navigation service providers (ANSP) will be testing and refining the multi-site concept of remote tower operations, and ultimately new viable concepts will emerge through this process.
A single air traffic controller will be tasked with maintaining situational awareness as per ICAO document 4444 and providing ATC services at multiple aerodromes remotely from a single Controller Working Position (CWP).
During the transition to remote tower operations and ultimately multi-site remote operations, ANSPs will be tackling a slew of challenges including regulator approval and establishing processes and procedures to ensure safety and service levels are maintained or increased.
In order to address these challenges, service providers will be modifying their concepts of tower operations by defining new procedures, roles, tasks, flight sequencing/scheduling and staff re-organization. One of the biggest challenges will be the transition of the working environment from a glass tower to a digital one and the ability for a single controller to provide service to multiple aerodromes.
Technology will take on an important role in enabling controllers to perform their duties safely and efficiently. In addition to using existing ATM and ATC tools such as electronic flight strips, surveillance systems, and new intelligent-video based applications, the remote tower system’s Human Machine Interface (HMI) will become the primary tool to enable the multi-site remote tower concept to be realised; as it will help address the strains on human performance in the RT environment, enhance the user’s situational awareness, and provide the flexibility for efficient implementation of new staffing and procedural concepts.
Currently Searidge Technologies is supporting several ANSPs in the process of implementing remote tower solutions that are quite unique from one another in terms of aerodrome size, number of aerodromes and concept of operations.
Out The Window
These implementations range from multiple small-regional aerodromes controlled from a single remote tower centre (RTC), to single large international airport controlled from a RTC (with multiple working positions), and small-regional sized airports where controllers would be providing service locally, via glass out-the-window (OTW) view, and remotely via digital OTW where the HMI is located in an operational tower cab.
A great deal of Importance is put on the user, the tools/surveillance provided to the user, and how the system interaction will enable the controller to perform their tasks with confidence and with the least amount of strain.
ANSPs adopting RTS must ensure the technology has the capability to easily adapt and evolve during the implementation process. As such, technology vendors should be providing features that offer flexibility to an ASNP to display video on one screen, two screens or a video wall, integrate information overlays and data, and enable the control of collapsing and expanding the HMI to accommodate procedures associated with shift-changes and increased volume
s.
Alleviation of construction and maintenance of brick and mortar towers, optimisation of human capital, and aggregation and maintenance of systems in centralised remote tower centres are driving the business case for remote towers today.
The concept of multi-site remote tower operations remains the golden egg that will provide true economy of scale benefits, making the RTS concept that much more lucrative to implement.
The human factors challenges that leading ANSPs will be faced with during initial implementations of multi-site operations are not entirely known today, as new, unique hurdles will arise at each site. Staff and procedure re-organisation will be necessary to realise the concept and technology will take on an even more important role in the process.
A remote tower platform that will be implemented will need to posses the versatility and modularity to grow and evolve with the needs of the service providers. Most importantly, the state of the technology is advanced enough, however ANSPs interested in successfully implementing any type of RTS will need to engage their controller community and regulatory peers, and build flexibility into any implementation plan to ensure that changing demands are constantly addressed.

So how ‘brave’ do we need to be to realise this concept? Clearly there will be some fundamental challenges to overcome: what happens if two aircraft arrive at the same time? Will clearance requests take longer to answer? Will a supervisor be needed to manage demand? Is the controller community on board? Will licensing arrangements change? Is safety increased? What does the ICAO Doc 4444 notion of ‘continuous watch’ really mean?
Of course these challenges need to be overcome, and there are several reasons why the industry is in a strong position to do so. Firstly, the iphone generation is arriving – people who have grown up in an environment of multi-tasking across screens/applications. Secondly, our understanding of human performance is better than it’s ever been before – we know our limitations and can design systems around those limitations.
Thirdly, enroute control has proven the ability of humans to manage a complex 3D environment with only a synthetic representation on a 2D screen – the removal of the altitude dimension at the airport surely only makes it easier by comparison? A-SMGCS has already proven itself at many airports. For example the Heathrow contingency tower is able to deliver 70 per cent capacity at one of the busiest airports in the world even without an out-of-window view.
Manageable Risks
For those who decide to go ahead with the multi-tower concept, several approaches can be used to help manage the risks.
Take one step at a time: There is an argument for starting from a blank piece of paper to design the most efficient concept for controlling multiple airports with a single controller. However, the regulator is unlikely to accept a radical departure from the current concept and a more realistic option will be to begin with the ‘single airport’ mode of operation – perhaps at a low density or even Aeronautical Flight Information Service (AFIS) airport – and then gradually transition to the ‘switched’ (sequential control) mode of operation and finally the multi-tower concept. At each stage trust will need to be built before moving to the next stage.
Weigh technology benefit against safety risk: The supporting technology such as video cameras, displays and airport surveillance systems, not to mention the many existing and varied local airport systems, have been around for some time. However, putting them together in a remote tower system is new. Standards for remote tower systems are not yet in place and, in fact, are likely to be at least two years away considering that a standardisation group has only just been created in EUROCAE and the more technology that is implemented, the more risk of divergence from whatever the future standard becomes.
Remote tower technology does however offer many opportunities to improve tower operations, particularly in detection and alerting – for example motion tracking; infra-red cameras; hot-spot cameras; surveillance label overlay; and pan-tilt zoom cameras. Such functionality might be required by the safety case – or the regulator – to compensate for the potential distraction and workload increase introduced by managing multiple airports, but it might also be considered an increase in risk, for example, due to over-reliance or false alerting. The safety case must therefore begin early and the system design should be modular and configurable to facilitate easier introduction/change as the concept matures. ANSPs will also need to undertake extensive validation work to establish the right balance between functionality and safety risk.
Procure wisely: SESAR has certainly helped to catalyse development, but the market for multi-towers is still very immature. Given this, together with the lack of standardisation, implementers might be better procuring with a partner. This could be another ANSP – perhaps even as a Functional Airspace Block – or an industry partner. It is also possible that airports themselves might form clubs to procure remote tower services for a number of airports – for example by forming not-for-profit buying clubs in the same way that airlines do for check-in equipment at the terminal.
Not only would a partnership reduce the risk on any single partner, but it could also enable even larger economies of scale in training, maintenance etc by expanding the procurement to more airports – much in the same way that the COOPANS partnership has enabled cost savings for the ANSPs buying an ATM system. Another procurement consideration is the process to follow. The uncertainty associated with the market and the technical requirements tends to favour the use of restricted and competitive dialogue procurement process, though these can require a great deal of work to prepare and undertake.
Are controllers ready?
The most important element dictating success or failure of the concept is the controller. Views will vary enormously in each situation. For some the multi-tower concept is an opportunity to move from a quiet and low intensity environment managing a few movements a day to a more exciting and dynamic environment which avoids the ‘lulls’ that lead to boredom and low attention levels. Others are concerned about moving from a comfortable tower perched over the airport to a darkened room in an unfamiliar location. Controller relocation is always complicated and expensive, and worse still is the idea of reducing controller numbers – but will this be required?
For the multi-tower concept to work, each controller will need multiple licences, but nobody knows how many. And how many licences will the supervisor need – if there even is a supervisor? Optimising the rostering schedule will be a difficult task, made more difficult by the issue of unscheduled flights. For some airports the level of unscheduled traffic could have a significant impact on the applicability of the multi- tower concept. Controlling multiple airports according to a predictable arrivals/departures schedule is quite a different ball game to a situation in which aircraft arrive as they please and with the expectation that a tower service is always available.
Aside from this there are many practical issues to resolve – even in the single mode, the validation trials in SESAR highlighted display issues, such as the difficulty to judge distance/separation, frame rates being too low, and night time issues with the video compression such as ‘artefacts’ and ’ghosting’.
Clearly this is a controversial concept for controllers. The strategy adopted by the early implementers so far seems to involve identifying ‘champions’ who want it to succeed and who are brave enough to promote the change from within. These champions will need patience though as even the most optimistic of us recognises that the multi-tower concept is a big change that will take time to realise. We wait to find out whether fortune really does favour the brave.
James is a principal consultant at ATM consultancy Helios, an Egis company.