Pilots and ATCOs: who needs them?

If you’re an airline pilot, how long before you’re replaced by automation? … or evicted from the flightdeck and consigned to a remote workstation to “fly” your aeroplane(s) remotely, like military pilots controlling a drone? Is the money you’re investing in a $150,000 ATPL course going to be worth it?

Find out here (unless you register for FG Club – which is free – you’ll only see the intro). I have consulted experts all over the industry to find out what the future holds.

If you’re an ATCO working in an aerodrome visual control room (VCR) at a secondary airport, how long before you end up doing the job remotely from a major control centre, looking at real-time visual displays rather than looking out the window?

Scandinavia has a problem with the huge expense of maintaining full ATC services at remote aerodromes that only see one or two movements a day, but those air movements – particularly in winter – are the sole lifeline between the community and the rest of the world. For non-passenger general aviation arrivals and departures it may be acceptable to operate visually without ATC, but for commercial public transport ops that’s not good enough.

So Sweden’s air traffic management provider LFV has worked with Saab to find a solution which would enable a real controller in a virtual VCR at a control centre to see, in real time, a panoramic display of the whole of a remote aerodrome  and what’s happening on it. After managing an arrival or departure, the controller can switch to the scene at another airfield where a movement is due.

Let’s save a thousand words by using a few pictures.

Saab Sensis flew me from Stockholm Bromma to Sundsvall, about a hour’s flying time to the north, where it has a remote tower control centre that it uses for demonstration, but which will go into service for real next year. This is Saab’s corporate shuttle, a Saab 2000…

Me about to board Saab 2000

Approaching Sundsvall…

Sundsvall approach


Sundsvall has a real tower because it’s quite busy.

Sundsvall real twr


But the airport is also home to a remote tower centre from which other aerodromes can be controlled. For demonstration purposes, Sundsvall hosts an entire system.

Here’s the mast that scans Sundsvall itself, so an ATCO could control the airfield from the real tower or the remote one, with a 16-video-camera array on top covering 360deg. Also mounted on it are the radio aerials, meteorological sensors, and microphones that deliver real on-airfield directional sound into the remote VVCR.

Saab Remote Tower - Sundsvall camera mast

The cameras are right at the top. One of the system’s selling points is that erecting this mast is a fraction of the cost of building even a simple manned tower.

LFV remote tower center

And here’s the view from the mast, delivered by the cameras.

The 360deg view is compressed into 180deg, so it’s slightly distorted, but you don’t have to turn around to see what’s behind you. That’s easier to get your head around than you think. It may be virtual, but the visibility is as good as the view would be out the window – if there was a window – but the vision can also be enhanced, and you can hear the aircraft pass as you watch them pass. You can even use real binoculars for distant aircraft.

Here’s what it looked like when I walked into the remote VCR, which is windowless and on the ground floor.

Remote twr setup

The controller workstations are the same as they would be in a real tower, with all the sensor information, digital flight progress strips etc. Here is the demo going on for a group of visitors which includes me.

It was real enough so that when I walked out of the room half an hour later I had forgotten I was on the ground floor and expected to find stairs, but had to adjust to the fact that I had not been in a real tower.

Okay, so this display was showing Sundsvall, which was outside for real, but it was a useful way of correlating the virtual with the real for customer demonstration purposes. However, a slight delay after a flick of a switch, and the VVCR was suddenly “at” a different aerodrome…

Remote twr display other airfield

That’s just a part of the display, looking right. We’re looking at Örnsköldsvik aerodrome, one of the airfields equipped with a remote tower mast.

This is not about getting rid of controllers, but it does mean that a controller doesn’t have to be posted to a remote airfield where he or she will have hardly any work. It’s a way of making better use of resources, human and hardware, because at a remote tower centre a controller can take care of several low-movement aerodromes, switching to the aerodrome that needs surveillance at any given time. And he or she will have backup from a colleague whenever necessary, and it would be easier to mount an around-the-clock service if that was necessary to cope with an unscheduled operation like an air ambulance movement.







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