Designing the future of ATC Tower: Exploring new solutions

Since their introduction to airports in the mid-19th century, air traffic control towers (ATCTs) have remained vital to the safety and smooth running of airports around the world.
air traffic control towers management solutions

Credits: Victor Kroot, Seba Rzk

With air-to-ground communication in conjunction with the air navigation and surveillance systems ensuring the safe landing of our flights, monitoring of runways and parking of aircraft.

Beyond their operational importance, ATCTs have become synonymous with the look and feel of our airports. They are a loved and distinct icon of the airport skyline. If you asked a child – or an adult for that matter – to draw you a picture of an airport, you can bet there’ll be a tower there.

An icon challenged

As airports seek to expand, digitize and innovate, air traffic operations have remained largely unchanged until a little over a decade ago. That made air traffic management (ATM) a problem for Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) who must find ways to improve efficiencies, improve on interoperability and find sustainable ways of working – whether to reduce emissions or meet financial targets.

That’s not easy as air traffic grows. If an airport wants to expand its runways, for example, they’re faced with the need to monitor those runways, ensuring line of sight and proper safety assurance. That’s not only an added CAPEX cost in the potential construction of a new tower, but in OPEX too, with the need to populate those towers with additional staff.

Monitoring expanding operations while seeking to reduce costs - do you see the challenge? In a world where space for these kinds of CAPEX and OPEX costs is increasingly limited – both financially and spatially – air traffic control must reinvent itself.

Remote and virtual towers - a burgeoning trend, but just a part of the solution

One trending solution to the future of air control towers is the 'remote' air control tower. A concept that embraces the potential of our digital transformation to optimise operations and make them more cost-efficient.

Remote towers can be established quickly and at less cost compared to traditional towers – while also using less space. Alongside these CAPEX savings, they introduce an entirely new way of operating air traffic control – providing potential OPEX efficiencies too.

The predominant operating concepts of the remote tower are 'single mode' or 'multiple mode'. Single being when one digital tower provides ATM services to one aerodrome – that could have one or more runways. And multiple mode of operation being the provision of ATM to two or more aerodromes simultaneously, from one digital tower.

Without the need to man a physical tower (or multiple), CAPEX and OPEX costs can be saved. All of which goes a long way to addressing some of the key concerns of airports about the future of their physical assets today.

The added hook is that these towers and their control centres can theoretically sit ‘remotely’ anywhere in the world - monitoring the air traffic of one, or many, runways. The use of video walls and technology with video stitching offer enhancements beyond the human eye too: visual overlays of information, additional cameras to cover areas of operational significance or blind spots, visual tracking and radar data overlaid or augmented onto displays.

Sounds perfect, right? Well, not quite.

In our ever-shrinking world, the ability to control the most remote aerodromes has been pushed as the most prominent virtue of Remote Towers – but is it the limit?

We’re challenging the current definition of digital towers. In doing so small and larger airports should both be able to utilise this technology – and they could even do it together.

Yasudha SahiATM Global Advisory Lead

One airport's solution is another airport's problem

There are already many ‘remote’ airports, operating with these remote or virtual towers. To date the solution has been targeted at small airports, or literally remote ones. Airports where air traffic can be comfortably monitored by a single digital tower, or where the possibility for a physical tower is limited.

The thinking is that larger airports may be reluctant to embrace the sweeping changes this innovation brings. Even with its benefits, the role of ATM has been so crucial and embedded in the processes of daily operations that upheaval is daunting.

Beyond this slight technophobia in the sector, airports and their architects simply love their towers. And those larger airports more than most. Because many of them have defined themselves by their towers and they don’t want to lose that icon of the skyline. It’s a fundamental part of the architecture that resonates with staff and passengers alike.

But what the approach of today’s remote towers takes for granted, is that airports will have access to the very large bandwidth required to stably run these traffic control operations from a remote location. After all, you can’t have communication connections cut out when you’re trying to land a Boeing 737 from 50 miles away.

In some parts of the world, this may not be an issue, but in others it simply isn’t feasible. These nations, islands, even continents, face challenges in establishing communication infrastructure and can’t put their existing operations at risk, even with the potential efficiencies.

Smaller airports across the world should be able to access the benefits that remote towers can provide. While larger airports have so much to gain from this transformation in their operations.

Is there an answer that could bring everyone together?

The future of air traffic control could be an approach and design that lays between what we have today, and the incredible potential of new digital technologies.

The digital tower - empowering human instinct with digital innovation

At NACO, we are prepared for the future of air traffic control – with a more sustainable answer that marries the innovation of digital towers with the aesthetics of traditional towers. All while addressing the concerns of infrastructure and remote operation insecurities.

The concepts of NACO’s airport architects perfectly illustrate the revolutionary potential of remote, virtual towers, while complimenting the airport skyline.

Alongside a design-led approach, we’re challenging the current definition of digital towers – removing the categorisation of 'single' or 'multiple' mode applications. In doing so small, single runway airports, and larger, multi-runway airports, should both be able to utilise this technology – and that they could even do it together.

Finally, a promising solution is to place ATM officers, removed from a physical tower, within airport sites. So that digitally enhanced ATC services can be powered by the established and tested airport operators, communications, and other infrastructure.

This not only removes potential instability, and the bandwidth required for a truly ‘remote’ set-up, it also opens opportunities for greater collaboration if the teams are housed in proximity to localised aviation services.

The beauty of the NACO Digital Tower designs is that it is still a much-reduced CAPEX cost – a little as a third of the cost of a traditional tower – with the same reduction in spatial impact.

An icon reinvented

Air control towers have stood still for too long. As airports face the need to find ways to facilitate growth and expansion – while finding efficiency in CAPEX and OPEX – they offer clear opportunities for improvements and enhancements.

Such efficiencies must be found and actioned appropriately, to the benefit of each airport’s needs. Today’s remote, virtual towers can fall short of that standard in those contexts where robust digital infrastructure isn’t readily available – or where the overhaul of daily operations isn’t desired.

A flexible solution could be the answer. One that works across airports big and small – and can operate remotely, or within the airport itself.

NACO’s Digital Tower concept reinvents an icon, bringing the innovation and insights of digital technology, while maintaining the beloved look of airport towers into the future.

This article was first published in the Special Bulletin Series 2023 "Remote and digital towers" of ATC Network.

Read our latest blog where our experts Clive McNabb and Yasudha Sahi share their views on what the future holds for ATM.

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