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The New Age of Air Traffic Control

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A suite of new Air Traffic Control (ATC) Technologies, such as Digital Towers, Remote Towers, Radar-in-the-Tower, Remote Radars, Mode S and ADS-B, as well as other innovations that are in the pipeline are changing the way Air Traffic Control is managed and controlled in the civilian sector. These advancements are integral to airspace change and air traffic management, playing a significant role in aviation impact and mitigation. Collectively these technologies are referred to as Digital Air Traffic Control (D-ATC), a significant part of Air Traffic Management.

The term Air Traffic Management (ATM), and therefore by association Digital aspects, is referred to as D-ATM, this term is subsequently used in this article as it better encompasses all aspects associated with Air Traffic Services, airspace management, airworthiness and certification, and associated ATC equipment.

ICAO Doc 4444 PANS-ATM defines ATM as: The dynamic, integrated management of air traffic and airspace including air traffic services, airspace management, and air traffic flow management — safely, economically and efficiently — through the provision of facilities and seamless services in collaboration with all parties and involving airborne and ground-based functions.

The initial ‘remote tower’ concept, a critical component in the feasibility analysis of new ATC technologies, was developed to satisfy specific use cases where an Air Traffic Service (ATS) at specific locations, mainly very remote, proved practically difficult and/or costly. While initially considered suitable in terms of capability for small remote aerodromes, the concept is no longer limited by size and can be provided at all airfields, enhancing operations and business resilience, if supported by a satisfactory safety argument underpinned by suitable regulation from the regulator. While most UK deployments have been at civilian airports (London City and Cranfield), there are examples of deployment in Europe at military airfields (for example at the NATO Airbase Geilenkirchen, Germany) and Osprey are currently supporting Navy Command in the commissioning of a remote tower for Predannack airfield, a significant step in aerodrome development, which is deployed in the ATC Tower at RNAS Culdrose.

Today, it is commonly understood that the ‘digital tower’ concept, a key aspect of audits and assurance in ATM, facilitates remote towers. This is much greater than just remoting the service provision and uses advancements in technology to deliver operational enhancement, functionality, and resilience to increase safety in the ATS. There is a subtle difference here; digital tower technology could either be a fully remoted service or could equally represent digital enhancement of a conventional capability. Some airports are considering implementing the enhanced functionality of digital towers without the desire to relocate service provision away from the airfield.

 

What is a Digital Tower?

A Digital Tower removes the need for conventional Visual Control Room facilities in that the view ‘out of the window’ is provided via large high-resolution screens fed by well-positioned high-definition cameras. There is no longer a need to locate a conventional ATC Tower on prime real estate with a clear view of the runway and movement areas (although this must still be achieved by the camera systems).

As well as providing the main ATS at an aerodrome, a Digital Tower can be used to provide contingency operation in the event of a major system or building failure at a vastly reduced cost compared to a separate facility. The addition of cameras to the existing operation, delivered to screens housed in a separate building along with minimum fit-out Comms Navigation Surveillance suite produces a highly effective contingency facility without the need to accommodate another bespoke ATC Tower.

Osprey has recently been involved in a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis for a client and took the opportunity to visit several companies that now offer a Digital ATM solution. The technology is mature and the opportunities that the introduction of digital or remote towers can bring are numerous such as:

  • Enhanced visual situational awareness – with features such as graphic overlays, surveillance labels correlation, and on-screen data presentation (e.g., Meteorological data or other text such as warnings/closure of taxiway or apron etc). Overlays are provided as customisable layers that can be toggled on/off, this technology is especially useful during Low Visibility Operations, including nighttime operations.
  • Binocular or zoom facility provides controllers with high-fidelity zoom capability to any point in the field of view.
  • Digital Towers can integrate a complete suite of automation tools, such as a ground/air traffic display or electronic flight strips enhancing controller situational awareness.
  • Modernising facilities leads to an improvement in staff morale. Osprey has seen several examples where morale is directly related to the working environment. By modernising the workspace as part of a D-ATM project, ANSPs benefit directly from improved staff morale, a second-order effect benefits both stress and fatigue, both of which are lowered by implementing a modern, bright, fit-for-purpose facility.
  • Safety – by utilising new technology, ANSPs can enhance the safety of their operations, the technology enables the controller to spend more time concentrating on their core task, removing unnecessary distractions associated with old, out-of-date facilities that are not ergonomically designed and have not taken advantage of more modern Human Factors considerations.

 

Understand the requirements.

New capabilities such as, digitisation of visual control which allows for digital visual control rooms, remote towers, and radar in the tower, and remote radar are changing the way that civilian and indeed, military ATM is provided.

From our experience of working with numerous civil airports and airport groups, Osprey has identified that the most critical aspect of such transformational capabilities is identifying and fully understanding the needs of the Air Traffic provision, a fully developed set of requirements is the first stage on this journey. There are now several companies in the marketplace that offer D-ATM solutions, and all have their advantages and disadvantages, Osprey recognises that a full evaluation of the requirements is required by the ANSP before committing to any work.

Osprey has long been a conduit between emerging technologies such as D-ATM technology and the regulatory organisations and can communicate its customers’ ideas and challenges effectively on their behalf.

 

Final Word

Osprey’s successful work with both military and civilian customers serves as a testament to our commitment to excellence and in conjunction with industry partners, demonstrates our ability to deliver effective solutions in the aerospace and defence sector.
The actions we take now to modernise Air Traffic Control will ensure that future generations can enjoy the many benefits of a technology-based ATS, including attracting new controllers to the industry. Osprey remains eager to support any ANSP’s modernisation programme.

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