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NATO AWACS base to trial digital tower technology

NATO's main operating base for its Boeing E-3A airborne warning and control system (AWACS) fleet is to trial the use of digital tower air traffic control technology next year, with equipment supplied by Swedish venture Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions.

Describing the contract as the first of its kind for employment at a military facility, the provider says: "NATO air base Geilenkirchen will use the digital tower for live operations during the refurbishment of the current control tower."

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Home to the NATO airborne early warning and control force's E-3A component, Geilenkirchen is located around 12 miles (20km) north of the German city of Aachen. The multinational unit is equipped with 14 of the Boeing 707-based surveillance aircraft.

"We are proud to be trusted by NATO to deliver an operational digital tower," says Per Ahl, head of Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions, which is 59% owned by Saab, with the remaining 41% interest held by Sweden's LFV air navigation service provider.

Saab says the equipment to be installed in Geilenkirchen is from a "second generation of digital air traffic control tower" technology and will meet the Alliance's "stringent requirements on availability and security". Ahl adds: "With the equipment, NATO will possess new capabilities."

Speaking at Saab's Linkoping site in late May, Ahl said the ability to remotely manage airports is "transforming the whole [air traffic control] operation into the digital world". Equipment used by the company at current operating sites includes mast installations housing a combined total of 14 cameras and providing 360˚ coverage, along with radar equipment.

Today, all passenger aircraft operations from Linkoping – along with the flight-testing of Saab products – are controlled from a digital tower in Sundsvall, almost 370 miles away. The southern Swedish site was earlier this year added to existing operations covering Ornskoldsvik and Sundsvall Timra airports. The Scandinavian Mountains airport facility at Salen – a popular Swedish skiing location – will also be added to this list in early December.

Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions is meanwhile on course to open a second control centre at Stockholm Arlanda airport next year, with initial capacity to manage a further four gateways. However, Ahl says this could eventually be increased to cover operations at up to 24 sites.

"Distance is not an issue if you have the right connectivity," Ahl says of the venture's digital tower technology. "Technically, we can be on the other side of the planet to control an operation."

Also noting that Saab has worked over several years with the Swedish regulator to approve the technology, and in engaging air traffic control unions, he says: "We haven’t changed anything regarding rules and regulations – the same operating procedures are applied. But it's a new way of handling the technology, and of handling the system."

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