Remote Tower Technology: Is Air Traffic Control moving into a new era?


Remote tower technology has the potential to revolutionise the Air Traffic Control sector, by allowing multiple airports to be operated from a single location, which could be a helping hand for smaller airports around the world, in particular countries such as Sweden where harsh winters often make air the only feasible means of transportation.

For sparsely populated countries, smaller airports provide an extremely vital link between remote communities and the larger urban cities.  These regional airports may only have one or two flights a day arriving and departing, however the airports require the same amount of costly infrastructure and qualified personnel to run the Air Traffic Control, ensuring the safe operation of aircraft in the area.  These fixed costs will be the same for the larger, busier airports and the smaller, more remote airports, and at a time that airports are trying to minimise costs, Remote Tower Technology maybe welcomed by the industry.

This new technology from defence and security company Saab could make a huge difference to costs, and they have also received final approval from the Swedish Transport Agency to boot!  The system is called “Remote Tower” and integrates a number of different technologies such as high definition cameras, pan-tilt-zoom cameras, surveillance and meteorological sensors, microphones and signal light guns.  These technologies are all installed at the airport, and report back to the main controller in real-time, at the “Remote Tower Centre”.  This allows the operator to use all of the available information and a live video feed to control ingoing and outgoing flights.  Essentially, one control centre could remotely control several regional airports, allowing the outgoing “fixed” costs to be reduced significantly.  The full range of air traffic services defined in ICAO Documents 4444, 9426 and EUROCONTROL’s Manual for AFIS will still be provided remotely by an ATCO (Air Traffic Controller) or AFISO (Aerodrome Flight Information Service Officer). ICAO explains “The airspace users should be provided with the appropriate level of services as if the ATS were provided locally at the airport.”

No laws or regulations have been changed yet, however, now that the Swedish Transport Agency has given the system its approval, the company will be moving to implement the system where they can.  Örnsköldsvik Airport on the northeastern part of Sweden's Baltic coast has become the first in the world to be remotely controlled in this way, with nearby Sundsvall Airport starting up remote operations soon after.  The Saab team is also working on two sites in the north of Norway, and at Alice Springs Airport in central Australia, after a non-operational evaluation was carried out in July 2015.  With relation to Alice Springs, the remote tower centre is located in the city of Adelaide, on the South coast of the country, 950 miles away.

Saab explained that they felt there was a need to revisit and revitalise the current technology that is being used, and gave the example of how the telecoms industry have changed so much in the last 15 years by introducing GSM as standard (Global system for Mobile), and since the technology has constantly been improving and evolving ever since.  This remote system may be the catalyst to evolve the technology used for Air Traffic Control in smaller airports across the world.