DLR tests new multiple remote tower concept

German research institute DLR and its international partners have carried out simulations to investigate how a single air traffic controller can control not just one, but multiple airports.

“The successful test campaign and its recent results have shown that ‘multiple’ can become a viable concept in the near future,” said Jörn Jakobi from the DLR Institute of Flight Guidance, who is DLR’s project coordinator for the European research project ‘PJ05 Remote Tower for Multiple Airports’.

Remote air traffic control of a small airport can have several benefits. Maintenance and operating costs can be reduced and poor visibility conditions can be compensated for by modern camera technology.

But to take full advantage of the concept, remote tower centres must be connected to more than one airport. This allows a much more efficient allocation of airports to air traffic controllers. The controllers work flexibly at airports where there is air traffic.

In more complex traffic situations, one, two or more controllers can control a single airport, while in less intense traffic situations a single controller can be responsible for one, two or more airports.

“Small and regional airports are faced with the challenge of reconciling the high costs of operating an efficient air traffic control tower with the low revenues from landing fees and other flight-related charges when traffic throughput is scarce or only temporary,” explained Jakobi. “The collective control of several airports offers the opportunity for the smaller ones to survive at low cost.”

Whether and under what conditions air traffic controllers can serve more than one airport at the same time raises numerous technical and human factors related questions for researchers and industry. Since 2016, 37 international partners led by the DLR Institute of Flight Guidance in Braunschweig have been researching solutions within the framework of the EU research and innovation programme Horizon 2020.

Together with DLR’s partners Frequentis, Leonardo Germany, the Hungarian and Lithuanian  service providers (ANSP) HungaroControl and Oro Navigacija, four simulation experiments were conducted at the DLR Remote Tower Laboratory in Braunschweig from November 2017 to December 2018. In the tests, one controller handled the traffic for up to three airports simultaneously.

The participants were confronted with different weather scenarios, changes of runway direction, runway inspections and emergency situations. They had to carry out coordination tasks with the approach controllers, the weather service and the airport operators. Depending on the complexity of the traffic situation, the controllers’ workload can range from totally underloaded to totally overloaded. Both extreme ends happen and should be avoided.

‘Multiple’ addresses this problem by a new ‘split and merge’ procedure. It allows the controllers to split or merge airports between different working positions. The feedback from the controllers indicates that this procedure shows great promise as a way of coping better with the workload in under- or overload situations. “After the trials, the controllers reported that they were able to quickly and easily familiarise themselves with the new concept,” said Jakobi. “They did not experience a single situation in which safety was impaired during all the simulation runs, and were therefore confident that the multiple remote tower could become a viable concept in the future.”