Leesburg Airport First In U.S. To Test Remote Control Tower
August 5, 2015
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  • The Leesburg Executive Airport is teaming up with SAAB Sensis Corp. to test a new remote air-traffic control system that eventually could be used at airports all over the country.

    The Town Council in September approved an agreement allowing the company and the research arm of the Virginia Department of Aviation, VSATS, to test SAAB’s new system while it undergoes Federal Aviation Administration safety certification. The technology already is used in Sweden, but the Leesburg testing is the first in the United States.

    “We want to build confidence with the FAA to show that this can work as advertised instead of a traditional brick-and-mortar air-traffic tower,” SAAB Vice President of Communications John Belanger said.

    Starting Tuesday, air-traffic controllers from across the country began a 15-week testing period during which they will participate in mock trials three days a week to see how well they work with the system.

    “It’s very exciting for us to be the first national testing case,” Leesburg Research and Communications Director Betsy Fields said.

    The system won’t be used to manage actual airport operations because the technology hasn’t yet been approved, but the tests will yield suggestions and feedback from controllers.

    The town’s Airport Commission has supported the development of an air-traffic control tower to better handle increasing flight activity. The airport ranks as the second-busiest general aviation airport in Virginia, with more than 100,000 takeoffs and landings annually.

    “When traffic gets higher, that’s where controllers help to space out traffic and can additionally assist pilots in poor weather conditions,” Leesburg Airport Manager Scott Coffman said.

    But building a standard brick-and-mortar tower is expensive, and can take years to complete. It took Frederick (MD) Airport eight years to get its air-traffic control tower up and running.

    Remote air-traffic control towers may be part of the FAA’s Next-Gen campaign to improve flight control nationwide. For this project, installation started in May. It cost the town $2,000 for two phone lines and electricity.

    SAAB’s system involves a crow’s nest at the top of the airport building that has an array of cameras designed to digitally produce a 360-degree view of the airport on 15 video panels in a control room. SAAB System Engineering Lead Dave Olster said air-traffic controllers have the ability to filter the screen for better visibility and can zoom in to specific areas—options not available to regular traffic controllers who monitor airspace by looking out a windo

    Coffman said if the technology were approved for use in Leesburg, it would help attract business jet operators as well as improve flight safety and offer more efficient communication to pilots.

    “This is an alternative to bring more air traffic and business to the region,” Belanger said. “We see huge potential for this in the future.”

    Olster said the initial cost of installing a remote traffic-control tower is less than a traditional one, ongoing costs are much lower and controllers can remotely work even if the technology isn’t housed at the specific airport they are monitoring.

    “You could be 30 miles away and still be able to do your job,” Olster said.

    SAAB, which has no affiliation with the car company, designs fighter jets and radar systems among other large projects. It selected Leesburg as the country’s first testing spot because of its need for an air-traffic control tower, increased flight traffic and proximity to SAAB and FAA operations.

    “We’re very excited to host the test and would like permanent installation of a tower,” said Leesburg Airport Commission Chairman Dennis Boykin, who added that many airports with less activity than Leesburg’s have control towers.