Traditional manned air traffic control towers are steadily being replaced with digital, remotely monitored ones. Tim Kridel explores the trend’s opportunities for pro AV.
The next time you jet off to InfoComm, ISE or another show, consider this as the plane pushes back from the gate: There’s an increasingly good chance that no one is in the airport’s control tower.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, either. As more air traffic control towers transform into digital, remotely monitored sites, they’re creating opportunities for AV firms with expertise in video surveillance, command-and-control (C&C) centres and other applications.
One example is London City Airport, where all flights are now handled by a remote tower 115 kilometres away in Swanwick, Hampshire, UK. Sixteen HD cameras capture a live, 360-degree view of the airfield. That’s fed over fibre to the C&C room at National Air Traffic Services (NATS), which provides air traffic control services in the UK and other EMEA countries. Radar and an audio feed from the airfield provide NATS controllers with additional information.
There are several reasons why airports are migrating to remote operations. In London City’s case, rapid growth and a tight location were two reasons.
“London City Airport is a small, municipal airport, but it expanded very quickly over relatively short period of time,” says Nevil Bounds, Biamp vertical market manager for building technology. “It actually can do quite long-haul destinations even off of its short runway.
“One of the problems is it’s right in the heart of London. It’s a very congested space. From the existing control tower, you probably can’t see all of the apron where the aircraft are parked and get the whole view of the place. So having a remote facility enables you to see a lot more.”
London City Airport controllers also struggled with visibility.
“It doesn’t have all the capabilities of a very large airport in terms of the highest quality landing aids and visibility from the tower, which is short and stubby,” says Bounds, who also hosts an aviation podcast called Plane Talking UK. “The high-resolution cameras and displays can give you very good visibility in even poor conditions.”
Another motivation is the ability to shift to an on-demand model, which also maximises controller productivity.
“Saab’s r-TWR solution enables this, as it allows the operator to move to the location where the demand is present at the time by simply pressing a button,” says Johan Landin, director of marketing and sales for Saab, which provided the technology for London City Airport. “The ability to simultaneously control up to two additional airports creates economies of scale and adds a dimension of operational flexibility never seen in this business before.
“It’s a true game changer for the air traffic management (ATM) industry. Seasonal variations and event-driven demands can be dealt with in a completely new fashion.”
The on-demand model is a particularly good fit for small airports with few flights each day. One analogy is having a single, centralised AV/IT help desk for all offices rather than staff at each, no matter how small.
“This may result in smaller airports remaining open for longer, or even keeping some regional airports open which otherwise would have been forced to close, due to high cost levels,” Landin says. “At larger airports at some locations, it has been shown that r-TWR can enable air navigation service providers (ANSPs) to increase efficiency by up to 60% or increase coverage for remote or out-of-sight runways. Tower controllers can hold endorsements for multiple aerodromes (regional airports), with numerous aerodromes controlled from a single facility.”
Enabling small community airports to stay open and safe helps ensure that essential air services continue. In some communities, such as rural Scandinavia, air service is the only way to provide medical care and supplies for part of the year.
There’s obviously a lot on the line in air traffic control, which is why remote operations use high-quality, high-spec AV gear.
“The fidelity available was absolutely incredible,” Bounds says about the setup for Heathrow Airport. “They are 4K cameras, and the displays are enormous.”
High resolution requires high-bandwidth links. Light levels are another key consideration.
“Those cameras operate in extremely low-light conditions, down to the infrared spectrum,” Bounds says. “They also need to operate in very bright conditions because as the sun moves around, you’re going to have extremely high levels of lux coming into the camera environment. So they have to be able to work in a wide range of colour temperatures and brightness levels.”
“A challenge with the ATC environment is the use of unique source formats, such as 2048 x 2048 radar content. A videowall processor must be able to correctly capture and display this signal format, which is rarely used in other environments.” – Joe da Silva, Extron
For integrators, another task is finessing those components so they provide not just a realistic view, but one that controllers are accustomed to.
“At the Heathrow tower, I was impressed with how evenly matched the cameras were and what a good job they’ve done blending the images,” Bounds says. “When they’re looking out of the real tower in real time, controllers are used to a certain kind of picture: a picture that they expect to see. A lot of the controllers were quite impressed with the view that they could get in the digital tower.
“It was very similar to the actual view that they would see if they were looking out of the tower. That’s a really big part of it because if you start to change someone’s mental picture of things, then you almost sort of start relearning the job.”
Many other types of C&C facilities — such as telecom network operation centres (NOCs) and highway camera monitoring centres — have AV systems and designs that carry over to the digital/remote air traffic control market. One example is a videowall that provides a centralised view of everything.
“A videowall processor, such as the Extron Quantum Ultra, can ingest a multitude of sources, including remote cameras, localised radar consoles and other computer data and video feeds,” says Joe da Silva, Extron director of product marketing. “These sources can be presented in any combination and size on the canvas. The content can be collaborative or provide a supervisory overview while individual controllers monitor their workstation displays. Features such as self-generated window borders and titles can help to visually distinguish one source from another.
“Another common design quality [factor] is the implementation of keyboard, video and mouse (KVM) extension and routing. This allows users to access remotely located computer resources. Extron systems like NAV Pro AVoIP and FOX3 fibre optic systems provide a seamless and real-time operating environment that is critical in spaces like a remote ATC facility.”
There are also some key differences.
“A challenge with the ATC environment is the use of unique source formats, such as 2048 x 2048 radar content,” da Silva says. “A videowall processor must be able to correctly capture and display this signal format, which is rarely used in other environments.”
Security is another obvious consideration. For example, years ago in Moscow, police said that for five months, their surveillance systems had been fed pre-recorded video — a trick right out of the “Oceans 11” films. At the very least, flights would grind to a halt if someone disabled or otherwise hacked the camera feeds.
“Fibre has already proven to be an effective medium for securely transporting data between airports and area control centres,” da Silva says. “Another viable option is AV-over-IP technology, such as the Extron NAV Pro AVoIP system, which implements encrypted streaming and certified cryptographic modules to protect the data.
“Encoder and decoder endpoints can be centrally managed and added to with ease, making a single system highly scalable. Looking beyond the data being transported, use of highly secure protocols such as 802.1X contribute to system-level security, while user management with Active Directory ensures only authorised administrators access configuration options.”
Although experience with other types of C&C centres is applicable to the digital/remote air traffic control market, vendors, integrators and consultants still should expect a steep learning curve.
“There were significant requirements to get where we are today,” says Saab’s Landin. “In Sweden, on the first operational tower, we spent approximately 32,000 man-hours in the approval work. A new entrant therefore needs to do their due diligence and understand what is required as it befits their competence. We therefore cannot give a blanket answer that will apply in all cases, but having experience in sectors where equipment is safety critical with high regulatory requirements is a good starting point.”
As in some other verticals, it can make sense to partner with a company that already has a reputation and relationships in the air traffic control market rather than going direct.
“Our advice would certainly be to collaborate with an established ATM supplier, as this market requires significant knowledge in governing rules and regulation, in addition to the technology itself,” Landin says. “Saab’s Remote Tower serves as a good application example where many obstacles have been overcome while taking full advantage of the AV technology.”
The remote digital air traffic control market also has reached the point that it generated its first Inavation Awards submission this year. B-Tech AV Mounts and integrator Kongsberg Defence & Aerospace collaborated on the world’s largest such facility in Bodø, Norway. A finalist in the control room category, the system includes 10 Samsung 65-in QM65R screens in portrait mode and mounted to form a curved videowall.
“It is of great importance that the AV mounting solution provides consistent curvature and seamless transition between each and every screen,” Jens Petter Duestad, head of operations at Remote Tower Centre Bodø, said in a case study. “It must be robust and steady enough to endure cleaning and enable replacement of individual screens swiftly.”
“The ability to simultaneously control up to two additional airports creates economies of scale and adds a dimension of operational flexibility never seen in this business before.” – Johan Landin, Saab
Future-proofing was another key consideration.
“We also demand the AV mounting system to be flexible in screen height and curvature since we are still in an experimental phase,” Duestad said. “Larger and more complex airports, implemented later in the Remote Tower Programme, might make other demands.”
The Bodø facility is noteworthy for a couple more reasons. One is how long these projects can take. Conceptual work began in August 2015, and the centre opened in October 2020.
Another is the market outlook. Since the Bodø facility opened, four more remote towers began operations, with another 11 on track to open by the end of 2022.