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Sundsvall SDATS

Digital towers offer airports a safer, more flexible future

5 min read

The future of air traffic management is more digital, secure and flexible, and increasingly remote-controlled. The new Remote Tower Centre RTC Stockholm is the next great leap in this rapidly evolving sector, as Niclas Gustavsson explains.

Not so long ago, air traffic controllers scanned airport runways from towers using only binoculars and the naked eye. The idea that a controller in a control centre could manage the air traffic of airports thousands of kilometres away was no more than just a fantasy.

But over the past 15 years, digitalisation has been gradually revolutionising air traffic management, so that today this ‘remote-controlled’ vision is coming true. At a time when the industry is struggling to attract air traffic controllers, especially for smaller airports, this technology is a godsend.

And Saab is leading the way, thanks to its digital towers concept. The prototype was first tested by Saab and its partner LFV (Air Navigation Services of Sweden) in 2006. But the breakthrough came in 2015, when LFV launched the world’s first Remote Tower Services, using the first generation of the Saab r-TWR product, at the Remote Tower Centre (RTC) in Sundsvall, northern Sweden.

“r-TWR technology gives air traffic controllers instant control,” says Niclas Gustavsson, Vice President Of Business Development & Governmental Affairs for SAAB Digital AirTraffic Solutions (SDATS). Gustavsson joined Saab in 2017 but is an ex-pilot and engineer with a long career in the aviation industry. He has been working on this concept since the beginning and chairs a global group that is harmonising air traffic standards for digital towers.

RTC Stockholm – a huge leap forward

In early 2021, the technology will take a huge leap forward. That’s when LFV introduces RTC Stockholm, using the second generation of Saab’s r-TWR digital towers.

With the aid of r-TWR’s hi-tech cameras and sensors and its on-screen system handling, air traffic controllers working at RTC Stockholm will be able to provide air traffic control to four airports spread across the length and breadth of Sweden – Kiruna in the far north, Umeå, Östersund, and Malmö in the far south.

“We’re going from air traffic controllers looking out of the window to a remote camera and sensor system. A distance of 2,000 kilometres separates Malmö and Kiruna, but on the screen displays in the remote tower centre, they are just 2.5 metres apart,” says Gustavsson.

LFV’s air traffic controllers will have access to a fully integrated simulation capability, allowing them to train on the same system as is used in the operational environment. The on-screen handling and a fully flexible centre will enable LFV to eventually support up to 24 airports. And Saab’s renowned modularisation approach allows for the technology to be maintained and updated to respond to individual customer requirements and keep up with new developments in the field.

The importance of people and safety

An inevitable question is: how will it affect jobs?

“Like in any other industry, centralisation brings change,” says Niclas Gustavsson.

“Some people won’t want to move to new centres, some will. There may eventually be less controllers over time due to the technology, but there’s always been a lack of controllers and that’s actually driven this: it’s difficult to attract new staff for a remote airport; you get many more applicants in bigger population centres.

“But it’s still people who will be manning these Remote Tower Centres and when they use the new technology they won’t want to go back to a time without these tools because the systems are so safe and much more efficient. People and safety are central to this.”

A technology whose time has come

Digital towers come as the Covid-19 pandemic has slowed the flood of airport traffic to just a trickle. But Gustavsson says the technology is equally valuable during this strange time.

“If RTC Stockholm had been up and running when the outbreak started it would have been possible to keep everything going in a much less costly fashion,” he says.

“Because, if you have an airport tower, you need people manning it, being there, sitting and waiting for the traffic. But if you have a Remote Tower Centre with few people and loads of connections, you can steer resources wherever they’re needed.

In the future, you can switch to another centre if someone is sick, and people need to isolate, or if one system has problems, you can switch to another region’s centre. It will erase international borders. There’s nothing to stop a centre in Germany covering a French airport if needs be. There’s that flexibility and instant connection to the scene.”

Niclas Gustavsson predicts that the airports of the near future will have much more diversified air traffic management needs than today.

“In five years, I believe airports will have a mix of airbuses and drones, as the latter become more common for just-in-time delivery services. We saw how rogue drones could shut down Gatwick Airport, but an integrated digital solution and accurate sensors would be able to track drones and other traffic. The two need to co-exist safely and efficiently in air ecosystem of the future and r-TWR is the answer.”

Gustavsson says Saab’s experience in both the military and civilian spheres, along with its customer credibility, puts it in an ideal position as both a supplier and even a contract operator. The technology is ready to go global.

“Digital towers is a technology whose time has come.”

Remote Tower SMA

Remote Tower

With several years’ experience of running an outstanding technical digital tower solution in live operation, Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions can offer all kinds of support needed to get a digital tower solution started and kept running. Working with everything from initial operational, technical and business case analysis and implementation, to training and organisation change management, Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions provides the full delivery.