Feature Story

The air traffic control tower turns digital

by Mary Gorges

The air traffic control tower turns digital

Even more screen time for some controllers as windows become screens.

As most everything we know about aviation turns digital, the most iconic of airport symbols, the airport traffic control tower, is getting its own 21st century makeover. 

Yes, screen time is taking over even there. At the new 'digital' control towers, the windows are no longer windows. Panoramic video screens are now affixed in their place, filled with live video feeds from as many as 50 cameras positioned around an airport's runways. Infrared sensors in the cameras capture images created by temperature differences, and can detect, for instance, an animal straying onto a runway at night.

Canadian company Searidge Technologies is working with some of the world's larger airports - Dubai International (one of the world's busiest), Malpensa Airport in Milan and Budapest International – to deploy the new "towers", which can take shape as a one-story building housing a video control center. Says Neil Bowles, the Head of Air Traffic Management at Searidge, "Looking out the window is the last analog element of air traffic control."

"Looking out the window is the last analog element of air traffic control."

Neil Bowles, head of Air Traffic Management at Searidge Technologies

Bowles explains computers and algorithms stitch together video to recreate a panoramic view on the window-sized screens. He says making it real time is critical, with video often sent over a fiber optic network or dedicated local broadband. "As the camera sensors capture the images, they must be displayed to controllers in one second or less. To put that into context, in sports, images appear on TV or streaming channels 8 to 9 seconds later than real time. We're talking about a lot of sensor data and very sophisticated software to create a very fast, seamless view from multiple sources."

Bowles says at larger airports, there are multiple sources of data that get overlaid onto the video, allowing controllers to focus on just one screen - data such as weather, outlines of taxiways, ground lighting systems, radar and digital call signs of aircraft. "This way, there's no ambiguity of what aircraft you're looking at. Sometimes, there are three or more aircrafts on the same taxiway from the same airline." 

The data augments the controller's view, particularly at night and in low visibility. Digital cues provide warnings of irregular landing approaches, if an aircraft taxis onto a runway it shouldn't be on, and helps controllers visualize optimal departure and arrival sequences.

Virtual towers can also look after more than one airport. NATS, the UK's air-traffic management company serving 14 airports, is working with London City Airport to provide it with remote digital air traffic control. Controllers will be moved some 100 miles away to a video control center in Swanwick, Hampshire, with cameras aimed at the runways in London City. The airport serves business commuter jets flying to the financial districts of Europe and to New York City. Says Steve Anderson, Head of Airport Transformation with NATS, "The controller's job doesn't change but the view will." 

Anderson says the traditional tower in London City has reached its end of life, and the remote facility will have a much smaller footprint – and lower costs – versus building a new tower. He adds taking the tower off site provides more space for the wider redevelopment of the London City terminal and airside facilities that are about to start.

"The controller's job doesn't change but the view will."

Steve Anderson, Head of Airport Transformation with NATS

Sometimes, the digital tower will be the first ‘tower' of any sort for an airport. The Leesburg Airport in Virginia, just outside Washington D.C., will become the first U.S. airport to be served by a digital tower. The airport serves corporate jets, medivacs and flight training aircraft. 

Safety is the driving force here. At airports like Leesburg, that currently have no air traffic control, pilots communicate with each other, announcing their position and distance over a common radio frequency – and keep their eyes peeled. Airport manager Scott Coffman says the new service will relieve pilots of the burden of looking out for themselves. "Traffic has gotten to the point that we need it. It's complicated air space, close to the Dulles Airport and inside a 35-mile security ring of Washington D.C.

Matt Massiano is Director of Business Development for FAA Programs at Saab Sensis, which is working with Leesburg. (Saab sold its car line to GM in 1995.) He says a real advantage of video is not just the real-time aspect and augmenting it with real-time data, but being able to replay – and recreate – what happened. In the case of an accident, this could prove invaluable. "We can re-create a situation that occurred and have recordings of everything." He says video is also a great way to train controllers.

As more airports experiment with the new towers, the image of the air traffic controller looking out the window with binoculars may quickly go the way of smoking in the cabin – a relic of the past. And looking out even further into the future, instead of binoculars, controllers may be looking through an AR or VR headset in order to feel as if they're actually down on the runways themselves. 

Let us know what you think of live video in control towers and what other enhancements you think could prove valuable to controllers, and of course, passengers.


The contents or opinions in this feature are independent and may not necessarily represent the views of Cisco. They are offered in an effort to encourage continuing conversations on a broad range of innovative technology subjects. We welcome your comments and engagement.