Remote air traffic control is the future foundation of the air traffic management industry

15 May, 2018

It’s no secret: remote air traffic control (ATC) will be a foundation of future development for the air traffic management industry.

Over the past two to three decades the industry has begged for its next leap in technology – with the inefficiency of legacy systems remaining prevalent in many societies.

Remote ATC technology uses a data network to transfer images and information digitally from an airport (or airports) to another location. The images and information transmitted are then displayed on large screens surrounding air traffic controllers, a set-up which simulates the environment in a traditional ATC tower. The camera technology at remote facilities has advanced to the stage where it can cope with difficult light and weather conditions.

Although still an emerging technology, remote and digital towers are genuinely an already proven product.

Look to Budapest Airport - a digital facility is already in use and a full uptake of digital operations is planned by 2020. Or London City Airport, which aims to replace its traditional ATC tower with a remote facility in Swanwick by 2019.

In a recent development, the Indonesian Ministry of Transportation formalised an agreement for a Swedish delegation to conduct a 10-month study into potential deployment of remote ATC technology. The study will focus mainly on areas in eastern Indonesia, Kalimantan Island and the Papua province.

Sweden is a frontrunner in remote air traffic management, with the air navigation service provider Luftfartsverket having gained an authorised approval to construct a remote centre in the city of Sundvall way back in 2014. In partnership with Saab, Luftfartsverket was able to commission the new centre by taking control of air traffic services at Örnsköldsvik Airport, located 100kms away, in Apr-2015. As of late 2017, Sundsvall Timrå Airport's traditional ATC tower was also closed, with air traffic of both those airports now controlled entirely at the remote centre.

The potential for remote ATC operations is, therefore, rather rich in Indonesia. The nation’s geographical layout, with its thousands of volcanic islands and various airports in isolated locations, would stand to benefit radically from linking multiple airports to remote management locations.

The main advantage that remote ATC brings is cost – for both airports and air navigation service providers alike.

In a small airport, air traffic control can account for 30-40% of the operating costs. Linking airports to a remote facility means ATC personnel no longer have to be stationed in isolated locations, which in Indonesia’s case would place less pressure on the air navigation service provider AirNav Indonesia to train local personnel. Additionally, one air traffic controller could be responsible for traffic at multiple low-activity airports.

On a wider scale, it also means that new airport projects could leapfrog the need for construction of a costly traditional ATC tower, and instead could be integrated into ATC at a remote facility that has already been established. Overall, remote ATC is a cheaper service that can also free up valuable real estate on the airfield for more revenue opportunities.

But is having air traffic personnel stationed away from airport control towers really safe?

Like many sectors going through an advancement in technology, remote air traffic management is also subject to preconceptions that are not entirely true. Many argue that digital towers are only suitable for airfields of low complexity and low ATM volume.

In fact, the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO) has addressed the concerns, with CANSO director Jeff Poole stating that while the traditional argument of ATM "has been that the human eye is better than technology...that is no longer true with fantastic technologies allowing much better visibility”.

Contrary to other concerns expressed by unionised personnel, CANSO also believes automation and digitisation in remote and digital facilities is actually aiding in a reduction of controller workload. Mr Poole adds: “I think ATCos are seeing that the digitised technology that is required for remote towers is actually improving their workstations and their working conditions".