The digitalisation of tower services

The control tower is one of the defining features of an airport but it may soon begin to disappear from the landscape. Digital technology, which has already  transformed many aspects of our lives, is about to do the same for aviation.

We now have technology available that will enable air traffic controllers to operate remotely. That means they will no longer need to be on site in the control tower  but can be many kilometres away, and manage traffic at multiple airports.

This will open up an exciting range of new possibilities which will fundamentally change the way airports are managed.

With air traffic control services accounting for a significant part of an airport’s cost base and EU regulatory changes outlawing subsidies, remote tower services (RTS) could be a lifeline for many  of Europe’s smaller airports. They will also be the key facilitator of the truly smart airport which will bring significant improvements in the cost and quality of service.

However, to secure the benefits of digitalisation, the aviation industry will need to answer some key questions:

  • How will managers of air navigation service providers adapt to a more competitive environment, where new digital solutions will provide safer and more cost efficient solutions?
  • How can governments increase air transport availability to generate wealth in society by creating the best possible conditions for introducing new digital infrastructure and solutions?
  • How can regulators streamline the operational approval process and reuse the experience of leading national regulators to introduce a standard for a European certification process?
  • How can airports take advantage of this new opportunity to create a smarter, more efficient airport?
  • How can airlines influence airports to adopt the new technology and ensure that benefits are shared?

The technology has been proved in operation and is running smoothly 

Answering these questions starts with recognising that this is not futuristic technology. It is already in operation and transforming airport operations. 

RTS use remotely operated cameras and sensors at the airport to relay high  definition images and relevant data in real time to an air traffic control centre. The controllers have access to the same views and get the same information in the control centre as they have in a conventional tower. They can also use new tools and features such as enhanced situational awareness, object tracking and alerts, night vision and image enhancement.

The world’s first digital air traffic services were launched in April 2015 in Sweden and allow remote control of the Örnsköldsvik airport from 100 km away in Sundsvall. This solution, developed by Saab and LFV, is now transforming aviation services and bringing clear benefits to operators, passengers and wider society.

RTS improves availability, capacity and cost-efficiency 

One of the clearest benefits is the way RTS can transform the economics of the significant number of European local and regional airports that are currently losing money. RTS will enable these airports to centralise and share their air traffic services and save up to 30–60% on air traffic control costs. This will make them more commercially viable, reduce the need for subsidy and make air transport more accessible in all geographies. That, in turn, will boost local and regional economic development outside big metropolitan areas.

Passengers will benefit too through lower costs. An airport with irregular and infrequent traffic is very expensive to operate because one or more controllers have to be employed just to manage a very small number of flights. A remote tower enables the airport to run 24 hours a day and seven days a week and deploy services only when they are needed and so reduce costs.

Digital air traffic control services will also provide airports with the opportunity to meet the demand for more capacity. Aircraft manufacturers forecast that the number of planes in the world will double within the next 20 years. In developing countries air travel is expected to increase by 6% a year and in Europe and North America annual increases of 4% are expected.

RTS can help airports to expand capacity to meet that increase in demand by providing more reliable services, such as when visibility is poor. RTS can also provide a back-up system to maintain capacity, when the service levels in the primary systems are degraded.

In addition, RTS has a significant potential to benefit airports in countries that are not currently served by air traffic controllers. These airports can move directly to using remote tower services, which will improve safety and the quality of services at a reasonable cost.

New career opportunities for controllers

While an RTS solution could reduce the number of air traffic controller positions in local and regional airports, RTS will also create new job opportunities. These will be at the shared RTS centres and reflect increased demand for air traffic control services, when local and regional airports become more commercially viable.

It should then be easier to attract and retain talent, as shared RTS centres can organise work more flexibly and provide more varied career development opportunities for controllers. Overall, there is clear potential for RTS to enhance and develop the role of the air traffic controller, making their jobs more secure and more attractive.

A rigorously tested and safe solution

It is clear that new digital approaches to air traffic control must provide a high level of safety and security. Recognising this need, RTS has a built-in full redundancy in terms of sensors, network and systems as well as specific operational procedures for controllers and pilots. In addition, the same operational and technological back up procedures are applied as those used in conventional systems.

Close attention has been paid to ensuring the highest levels of cyber security. Saab applies the same test procedures to RTS systems as those it uses for its defence and security applications. It has conducted multiple trials of its RTS technology and no security agency has succeeded in breaking into the system.

Furthermore, the approval of the remote tower solution by Transportstyrelsen (the Swedish Transport Agency) was based on a rigorous evaluation against the same strict standards and procedures applied to a conventional control tower system. This operational approval from Transportstyrelsen can be directly translated into the national approval processes in other EU countries.

“The fact that we have gained operational approval proves the concept and will shorten and simplify coming approval processes significantly. However, the concept of remote towers is only the first step towards delivering a smart airport." 

Niclas Gustavsson, Director Business Development & International Relations at LFV,

Shared information enables integrated and seamless airport operation

The move to a truly smart airport is the clear next step and providers need to seize the potential advantages of remote towers and digitalisation that go beyond air traffic control.

In a world where turnaround times are critical to the economics of airline operations, inefficient ground handling is a source of major cost. However, if the different service providers on the ground such as cleaners, baggage handlers and food and fuel providers have access to their own “tower view” they will be able to time their services more precisely to the time of each flight arrival.

That will reduce the turnaround time and the risk of delay. There will also be other opportunities to use tower information to improve airport operations from security to operational flows. This will enable the creation of a truly integrated and smart airport, running a seamless operation.

All this means we are convinced that digitalised air traffic services are the future of aviation. New airports will move straight to digital technology and existing airports will replace conventional towers when they reach the end of their economic life, or even before.

Digitalisation is driving new and more cost-efficient business models

This will add up to a dramatic change in air traffic services business models. RTS means airports can now purchase air traffic control as an on-demand service. This will support a business model where companies invest in control centres in selected markets, where airports can purchase air traffic control services based on aircraft movement per landing or take off. This would be attractive both to large airports as well as small and new airports.

In particular, this will benefit airports where traffic is highly seasonal. In northern Sweden, for example, skiers arrive in great numbers in winter and again later in the year during the hunting season. Outside of these peaks, demand is low. With a RTS-enabled business model, these airports will be able simply to purchase air traffic services for their take offs and landings, without incurring ongoing costs when the airport is not used.

There will undoubtedly be other opportunities to develop new services and revenue streams. However, to make these a reality all those involved must focus on delivering innovative products and solutions. They will also need to develop new partnerships and collaborations and be willing to do things in a different way and, for some sectors of the industry, this will undoubtedly be a challenge.

Digital solutions are taking off fast

What is clear is that digitalisation of aviation is coming fast and cannot be ignored. We believe that in a few years’ time there will be few new conventional towers built, especially at regional airports.

“It's clear that there is a shirt in the market, there is a significantly increased interest among our clients and many see digital air traffic solutions as the way forward" 

Per Ahl, Head of Commercial, Civil Security & Traffic Management at Saab

The task now is to make this happen by addressing the cultural challenges and a change in mind-set. Existing providers, regulators and the industry should embrace change and seize the opportunities it presents.

Current providers will need to adapt to match the service offerings made possible by digitalisation, otherwise they could find their position challenged by new entrants. This will be a serious challenge, especially for national air navigation service providers, which enjoy a de facto monopoly in regulated markets. They will need to adapt to match the service offerings made available by the digitalisation or find their position challenged by airlines, governments and regulators.

For airports the key questions will be how the new digital capabilities such as shared situational awareness and shared tower views can be used to optimise airport flows to maximise the passenger experience and airline efficiency. They will need to consider whether they should take the lead in, as opposed to follow, the development of these new control centres.

Airlines too need to be aware of the potential of digital air traffic control services to enable faster turnaround times and significantly improve ground services, and at the same time lower the cost for service provision.

In a fiercely competitive market, airlines have a real incentive to encourage airports to embrace the digital revolution.

The role of regulators is going to be critical. They need to find ways to keep up with digital airport technology, encourage efficient airport management, and open up markets to new air traffic service providers.

They will also have a role in helping the general public to gain confidence that this new digital technology is both safer and more efficient.

“Whether you are a state ANSP operating in a regulated market or competing in a deregulated market, it is your responsibility to deliver a safe, cost-effective air navigation service with maximum availability. Digitalisation enables all ANSPs to improve safety, increase the quality of services, reduce costs, increase the flexibility of the service and to offer attractive new business models" 

Dr Anders Adrem, Global Head of Aviation, PA Consulting Group

It is encouraging that this debate has started. Decision makers now need to address the issues and understand the real opportunities digitalisation offers to make the airport of the future a reality.

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