In a world first, air traffic controllers armed with a suite of high-tech video and sensor equipment have been authorized to direct flights over 100 km (61 mi) away at an airport in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden. The technology, developed by Saab, offers alternatives to consolidate smaller airfields with smaller budgets under one control, and provides options for training, crisis situations, and tower maintenance or refurbishing.
Designed to meet the current needs of airport control, but scale in the future, the Saab Remote Tower System (RTS) has two components. First, the airstrip itself is installed with a tall, repositionable bank of high-res cameras, microphones, signal light guns and meterological sensors.
All that information is sent to the Remote Tower Center (RTC), where human operators direct air traffic as they might traditionally, but over a great distance from the airfield. The RTC can also be designed to resemble more of a high-tech media room, with a 360 degree LCD or projected image live from the airfield, instead of 360 degrees of windows.
The Swedish RTC has been approved to direct air traffic for two remote airports in Sweden, with full operation expected to begin in autumn this year. Theoretically the system allows smaller airports to upgrade their towers and by efficiently grouping multiple airfields together in one remote control center, airfields can avoid limiting flights or closing completely.
Australia and Norway are also in the process of testing the Saab system, with Norway slated to begin use soon. The Landvetter Airport in Sweden, the second largest in the country, has begun testing the system for something slightly different – in the case of an emergency, a remote tower could provide contingency operations, avoiding a forced closure or reduced capacity of the airport.
An obvious concern might be what happens in the case of an equipment failure, since there won't be "eyes" on the ground. Saab says its cameras are being able to cover for each other in case one fails, and that the procedures for an "unavailable system" are no different than other air control procedures for dealing with an inadvertent problem.