Remote and virtual tower
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The first remote tower implementation providing aerodrome ATS was approved and introduced into operations in Sweden in April 2015, with further implementations in other EASA Member States well underway. (EASA, 2017)
The RVT concept is aiming at providing:
- Remote tower services at small and medium size airports, by personnel located at a remote tower centre somewhere else.
- Contingency services at major airports, in the case of fire or other events which could take place at the control tower building. The contingency facility should be at safe, nearby, but different physical location.
- Synthetic augmentation of vision to increase situational awareness at airports during poor visibility conditions at the local airport control tower facilities.
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 or AFISO. The airspace users should be provided with the appropriate level of services as if the ATS were provided locally at the airport.
The SESAR Joint Undertaking projects are looking at RVT concepts, based on either one person controlling one airport, or one person controlling multiple airports.
The basic concept, formerly known as virtual towers, was introduced by Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt e.V. (DLR) in 2002 and describes a remote ATC control room with video-sensor based surveillance instead of 'out-of-the-window' view from a real tower. The initial trials of remote ATS, for low and medium-density airports, have been based on optical sensors (cameras), providing the ATCOs at the RTC with a high-quality real-time image of the runway, the airport ramp (APRON) and the very nearby airspace. These real-time images are displayed at large monitors providing up to 360-degree view.
Beside the live video feed from the airport, the ATCOs have available the same air traffic management computer systems as they would have in a local control tower building, being voice communication systems, meteorological systems, flight plan systems, and Surveillance display systems. The level of equipage might depend on whether it is a controlled TWR service, or a Flight Information Service being provided at the specific airport. Depending on the complexity of the airport, the traffic densities, and weather conditions, it might be preferable to complement the optical images with an advanced surface movement guidance and control system (A-SMGCS) with signal inputs from surface movement radar (SMR) and/or Local Area Multilateration (LAM).
Development and validation
The RVT concept is under development, besides of other former research & development inititaives (e.g. by DLR, DFS, LFV, Searidge Technologies, SAAB, FREQUENTIS, Indra Sistemas or the FP6 EU project ART, etc.), as part of the SESAR Joint Undertaking (SJU), where work package 6 develops the operational concepts, while Work Package 12 develops the corresponding technology to enable the RVT functionality.
There will be carried out live SESAR validation trials at a few selected airports in Germany, Spain (ENAIRE), Norway (Avinor) and Sweden (Luftfartsverket) as part of SESAR Joint Undertaking Projects 06.08.04 and 06.09.03 during the years 2012–2015.
In March 2009, Saab Group and Luftfartsverket (LFV) carried out a live shadow mode demonstration of their existing remote tower concept. This demonstration took place at a remote tower centre facility established at Malmö air traffic control centre (ATCC), controlling a flight in and out of Angelholm airport (ICAO:ESTA) in southern Sweden. As a contingency mechanism during this trial, the local control tower at Angelholm was staffed by ATCOs.
In 2010 DLR carried out the first human in the loop remote tower center simulation, whereas a remote controller operated traffic at two different low frequented airports simoultanouesly. Despite several biases the controllers' situation awareness was over-average and their workload remained in average range and operational feasibility could be shown the first time.
DLR Institute of Flight Guidance, Saab Group, Luftfartsverket, Indra and DFS have been the major driving forces behind the Remote Tower development, and are all represented in the SESAR Joint Undertaking projects, SAAB through North European ATM Industry Group (NATMIG) and LFV NORACON.
During ATC Global in Amsterdam in March 2011, SESAR Joint Undertaking had a ceremony where Project 6.9.3 'Remote & Virtual Tower' was given the award for 'most advanced for deployment'. The price was presented by Executive Director of SESAR Joint Undertaking Mr Patrick Ky, and received by Project 6.9.3 Project Manager Mr Göran Lindqvist, NORACON.
RVT in operation
As of 21 April 2015 12:00 am, the airport of Örnsköldsvik/Gideå (OER/ESNO) is run using remote ATC services from Sundsvall/Midlanda (SDL/ESNN). This is reported to be the first production deployment of RVT in the world. The system was tested at Leesburg Executive Airport in summer 2015.
On 1 October 2015 the FAA announced Fort Collins-Loveland Municipal Airport as the first official FAA approved Virtual Air Traffic Control Tower test site in the United States. The equipment necessary for the testing is expected to be installed at the Fort Collins-Loveland Municipal Airport by spring of 2016, with initial testing and assessments of the new virtual technology commencing shortly thereafter. 
The main benefits of RVT is expected to be on cost efficiency.
The cost savings originate from the following factors:
- No need to build and maintain control tower buildings and facilities at the local airports
- More efficient use of human resources (ATCOs and AFISOs), especially by serving multiple airports with medium to low traffic levels from a centralised location
- Reduced need to establish and maintain ATM systems locally at the airports. By using data communication networks from the local airport to the remote tower centre, several technical systems can be centralised, hence costs savings are possible
There is also a great potential to better and more cost efficiently serve flights which either are scheduled outside the core opening hours of the airport, or by being able to serve non scheduled traffic (ambulance flights and search-and-rescue helicopters) with an air traffic service during night time when a smaller airports would normally be closed.
In 2014 the European Organisation for Civil Aviation Equipment (EUROCAE) founded the Working Group (WG) 100 “Remote and Virtual Tower”. The WG-100 was launched under the Chair of the German Aerospace Center - DLR and EUROCONTROL in the Secretary role. WG-100 further consists of active contributors (air navigation service manufatcurers & service providers) from more than 30 companies worldwide and acts in close coordination with EASA, ICAO, SESAR, and the most recent SESAR2020 project "PJ05 Remote Tower". The group was tasked as a first step to develop standards for remote towers optical systems. In September 2016 the ED-240 MINIMUM AVIATION SYSTEM PERFORMANCE SPECIFICATION (MASPS) FOR REMOTE TOWER OPTICAL SYSTEMS document was published. These MASPS are applicable to all optical sensor configurations (visible, as well as infrared spectrum) to be used for the implementation of the remote provision of ATS to an aerodrome, encompassing the whole chain from sensor to display. This standard should help vendors and customers to quantify an optimal operational system performance and to verify it in a standardised way. For the time being the WG-100 work focuses on an extension of the current MASPS (revision A) to include ‘visual tracking’ and automatic Pan-Tilt-Zoom (PTZ) camera object following technologies. ‘Visual tracking’ is understood as the augmentation of the display of objects on the visual presentation by using information obtained only by image processing of the video from the optical sensors for the purpose of increasing the operator’s situation awareness. The PTZ Object Following function attaches the PTZ camera to a moving target and persistently follows and displays it automatically. The MASPS ED-240A are expected to be published by 2018.
While some may argue, there are strong similarities between the concept of RVT, and the criteria for disruptive innovations as defined by Clayton Christensen and Michael Raynor in the book "Innovators Solution". A closer examination of the technology and its practical use would indicate that it is more appropriately categorized as a sustainable innovation, marking an evolution in aerodrome control by supplanting visual observation with a surveillance system.
- Wettbewerb der Visionen 2001-2004
- "Virtual Air Traffic Control Tower Test Facility Announced". Colorado Department of Transportation. Retrieved 2015-10-26.
- N. Fürstenau, "Virtual Reality for Integration, Proc. 12th Scientific Seminar: The Challenges of Integration", DLR, Inst. of Flight Guidance, 30.-31.Oct. 2002, to be published as DLR-Mitteilung, www.dlr.de/
- N. Fürstenau, M. Rudolph, M. Schmidt, B. Werther, Virtual Tower, in: "Wettbewerb der Visionen 2001 – 2004", Hrsg. Deutsches Zentrum für Luft-und Raumfahrt (2004) pp. 16 – 21
- N. Fürstenau, Virtual Tower, 5th ATM R&D Symposium (DLR, Eurocontrol, EC), Braunschweig, 11.-13.10. 2005 http://atmsymposium.dlr.de
- Möhlenbrink, C., Papenfuß, A., & Jakobi, J. (2012). The Role of Workload for Work Organisation in a Remote Tower Control Center. Air Traffic Control Quarterly, 20(1), 5-26.
- EASA, 2017. Technical and operational requirements for remote tower operations. Cologne: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.