Manila Bulletin

Now ar­riv­ing: Air­port con­trol tow­ers with no hu­mans in­side


NEW YORK (AP) – Pas­sen­gers land­ing at re­mote Orn­skoldsvik Air­port in north­ern Swe­den might catch a glimpse of the con­trol tower – likely un­aware there is no­body in­side.

The dozen com­mer­cial planes land­ing there each day are in­stead watched by cam­eras, guided in by con­trollers view­ing the video at another air­port 90 miles away.

Orn­skoldsvik is the first air­port in the world to use such tech­nol­ogy. Oth­ers in Europe are test­ing the idea, as is one air­port in the United States. While the ma­jor­ity of the world’s air­ports will, for some time, still have con­trollers on site, ex­perts say un­manned tow­ers are com­ing. They’ll likely first go into use at small and medium air­ports, but even­tu­ally even the world’s largest air­ports could see an ar­ray of cam­eras mounted on a pole re­plac­ing their con­crete con­trol tow­ers.

The com­pa­nies build­ing these re­mote sys­tems say their tech­nol­ogy is cheaper and bet­ter than tra­di­tional tow­ers.

“There is a lot of good cam­era tech­nol­ogy that can do things that the hu­man eye can’t,” says Pat Ur­banek, of Searidge Tech­nolo­gies, “We un­der­stand that video is not real life, out the win­dow. It’s a dif­fer­ent way of sur­vey­ing.”

Cam­eras spread out around an air­port elim­i­nate blind spots and give con­trollers more-de­tailed views. In­frared can sup­ple­ment im­ages in rain, fog or snow and other cam­eras can in­clude ther­mal sen­sors to see if an­i­mals stray onto the run­way at the last sec­ond.

None of those fea­tures are – yet – in the Swedish air­port be­cause of reg­u­la­tory hur­dles.

Orn­skoldsvik Air­port is a vi­tal life­line for res­i­dents who want to get to Stock­holm and the rest of the world. But with just 80,000 an­nual pas­sen­gers, it can’t jus­tify the cost of a full-time con­trol staff – about $175,000 a year in salary, ben­e­fits and taxes for each of six con­trollers.

In April, af­ter a year and a half of test­ing a sys­tem de­signed by Saab, all the con­trollers left Orn­skoldsvik. Now, an 80-foot tall mast hous­ing 14 high­def­i­ni­tion cam­eras sends the sig­nal back to the con­trollers, sta­tioned at Sun­vsal Air­port. No jobs have been elim­i­nated but ul­ti­mately such sys­tems will al­low tiny air­ports to pool con­trollers.

Old habits are hard to break. De­spite the abil­ity to zoom in, con­trollers in­stinc­tively grab their binoc­u­lars to get a closer look at im­ages on the 55-inch TV screens. And two mi­cro­phones were added to the air­field at Orn­skoldsvik to pipe in the sounds of planes.

“With­out the sound, the air traf­fic con­trollers felt very lost,” says An­ders Carp, head of traf­fic man­age­ment for Saab.

The cam­eras are housed in a glass bub­ble. High pres­sure air flows over the win­dows, keep­ing them clear of in­sects, rain and snow. The sys­tem has been tested for se­vere tem­per­a­tures: 22 de­grees be­low zero and, at the other ex­treme, a siz­zling 122 de­grees.

Niclas Gus­tavs­son, head of com­mer­cial de­vel­op­ment for LFV Group, the air nav­i­ga­tion op­er­a­tor at 26 Swedish air­ports, says dig­i­tal cam­eras of­fer nu­mer­ous pos­si­bil­i­ties for im­prov­ing safety.

Com­put­ers can com­pare ev­ery pic­ture to the one a sec­ond be­fore. If some­thing changes – such as birds or deer cross­ing the run­way – alerts are is­sued.

“Maybe, even­tu­ally there will be no tow­ers built at all,” says Gus­tavs­son.

Saab is cur­rently test­ing – and seek­ing reg­u­la­tory ap­proval – for re­mote sys­tems in Nor­way and Aus­tralia and has con­tracts to de­velop the tech­nol­ogy for another Swedish air­port and two in Ire­land.

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