Remote Towers: the pursuit of a commercial return

Written by: James Hanson
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Being present in Sundsvall at the transition into full operations of the world's first remote tower was a great experience. Sweden has an innovative aviation heritage, and both LFV and Saab deserve much credit for all the work that led to a perfectly executed launch to make their mark in history.

The first 'tower-less tower control' operation was of course something to be admired, but what I applaud more is the approach taken to get there. From the very start the focus has been on getting the design and implementation right, and to let the approvals, standards and market opportunities develop afterwards. Of the ten or so years in development, it took seven to finalise the design, achieved in 2012. It was sufficiently mature that only two to three years were required for verification, testing and regulatory approval – not bad for something never tried before! I can't help but draw parallels to Steve Jobs' philosophy at Apple when he said, "my best contribution is not settling for anything but really good stuff, in all the details. That's my job – to make sure everything is great."

So, now that the 'first' is behind them, the priority for LFV is to get a return on the significant investments that have been made. To realise the potential of the remote tower proposition, focus must be placed on the business case that lies at its heart. However the business case is not universally applicable. Even the SESAR Joint Undertaking recognises that a remote tower implementation is a local solution offering local benefits, that doesn't require synchronised deployment (which is why the SJU rejected it from their proposal to the European Commission for the Pilot Common Project – latterly Regulation 716/2014).

For those looking at what remote towers can offer, there are several dimensions that can improve the local business case and that should be assessed as part of an overall strategy for airport ATS provision:

  • Equipment cost: Lower costs could be achieved by reducing screen size; minimising resolution and number of screens or cameras; shrinking the footprint (at the remote centre and airport); limiting functionality; reducing contingency to the minimum required safety; and using commercial off-the-shelf equipment.
  • Optimising the concept: Options here include controlling more than one tower from a single module, combining approach or apron control functions, increasing the level of automation and controller productivity, and reviewing training needs. It's also worth considering solutions for different airport needs such as for contingency, to improve airport security, or as part of a wider integrated airport management system.
  • Entering new markets: Revenues can be increased by accessing opportunities for ATS provision in other countries, expanding into other markets (such as Oil and Gas), and by tailoring solutions to enable military applications.

The list doesn't end there either. Other aspects to balance include: rostering arrangements, flight planning and flow management, data communications or bandwidth service level agreements and deployment timing, eg to coincide with asset replacement or retirement.

Once all the different options have been explored, an implementation plan can then be prepared and the detailed implementation tasks such as assessing risks (safety, cyber security, human factors etc) can begin.

As one commentator in Sundsvall eloquently put it: "We are not luddites – we cannot stop the progress". Judging by the resounding nods of agreement and references to remote towers being the future of ATM, it looks like it won't be very long until the second operational deployment!

Helios performed one of the first business cases for Remote Towers, back in 2008 and since then has been supporting implementations in both Sweden and Norway. Contact the author for more detail

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James Hanson
Tel: +44 1252 451 651

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