Remote ATC towers – coming to an airport near you?

“Cessna 345, you’re in sight. Cleared to land runway 25.”

With those simple words, the friendly voice from the control tower declares that the runway is all yours. The implicit agreement between you and the controller is that you have an extra set of eyes at the airport, watching the traffic flow and ensuring your airplane doesn’t hit another one. Like a race car driver talking to his spotter, flying into towered airports is a team sport.

But what if there’s not actually a tower at the airport? And what if that friendly voice isn’t watching the runway with his own two eyes?

This question is no longer hypothetical. The concept of remote towers, once the stuff of research papers and futurists, is now a reality–and it might be coming to the US sooner than you think.

How it works

Remote ATC tower
Remote towers aren’t as crazy as they sound.

Rapid advances in technology, especially high definition cameras and fast internet connections, make a remote tower fairly easy to imagine. In a typical installation, multiple HD cameras and a microphone are placed at the airport to be the controller’s eyes and ears. A full meteorological sensor package is also installed for weather reporting.

These sensors are then connected (via high speed data link) to a centralized control room–often hundreds of miles away. The controller monitors and communicates with traffic just like today, but the view out the “window” is really a wall of computer screens.

Sweden, and Saab in particular, is the leader in this technology. As an example, the Ornskoldsvik Airport in northern Sweden was recently approved to operate solely by remote tower. Multiple other tests sites have been running, and they have proven that this system can work–and quite well.

Why now?

Just because a remote tower is possible doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Why the new attention? The reason is exactly what you might expect: money. The continuous cycle of fiscal negotiations and FAA budget cuts–particularly the sequestration fight of 2013–forced many in the FAA to review every expense. It was only natural that control towers, which cost roughly $1.5 million to build and another $500,000 per year to operate, would get some scrutiny. With over 500 locations in the US, it’s pretty easy to find some savings by trimming even a few dozen.

But the idea of completely closing towers or ending the contract tower program met with pretty stiff resistance from the aviation industry and many in Congress. That sent the FAA looking for an alternative solution, just at the time when technology had matured enough to make the remote tower concept affordable.

Perhaps surprisingly, even the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) is supportive of this idea–or at least they think it’s worth exploring. The union is probably making the calculation that a remote tower is better than no tower for its members, and that may be the only choice on offer.

Pros and cons

A physical tower? That's so 1990...
A physical tower? That’s so 1990…

What should we as pilots think about this trend? Are remote towers just the latest effort to dehumanize aviation? Are the bean counters ruining our world? That’s the natural reaction to this type of story, but I think that’s overkill.

First, no one is talking about eliminating all control towers, so don’t expect to see a remote tower at O’Hare anytime soon. While Sweden’s testing has been encouraging, it’s worth remembering that their aviation system is quite different from the US. For example, the remote tower at Ornskoldsvik can operate with enviable predictability, since 100% of the traffic at the airport is scheduled. There are no VFR pilots out for a $100 hamburger at these Swedish airports.

But even considering these limitations, there are plenty of plausible uses for a remote tower. For one, there are dozens (if not hundreds) of airports in the US with control towers of dubious necessity. 149 of these were slated for closure during sequestration, and even the most ardent GA supporter would have to admit that some of these probably don’t need to exist. A remote tower could be a good middle ground between a fully-staffed tower and a completely non-towered airport.

There are other uses that make even more sense. For example, at seasonal airports like the ones found in ski country, a remote tower could be a cost effective way to offer service only during the three months when it’s needed. And it is often needed: a tower offers major time savings for IFR airplanes in the winter. When traffic drops down again, the tower simply goes away. The same is true for temporary towers during large sporting events–could there eventually be a mobile tower sensor truck that could roll in, sans controllers?

Even at some busier airports, like LAX, large parts of the ramp are not visible from the tower due to obstructions (and the sheer size of the airport). A blended approach, where the traditional tower includes displays from remote cameras, could be a major safety enhancement by allowing controllers to see all ground traffic.

Pessimists will naturally worry about the relentless drive for cost-cutting. Will one controller end up working four airports and potentially making a fatal mistake? That setup probably would not work for the freewheeling style of the US, and it’s unlikely that NATCA would go for that arrangement anyway. But even if each controller is limited to working one airport at a time, remote ATC could allow ten “towers” to be housed in a single building. That alone would lead to cost savings on the facilities.

Much like Flight Service evolved from in-person offices to a few centralized locations, ATC may evolve into a service that’s less focused on the physical location of the person delivering it. It may not be perfect, but it’s not necessarily unsafe or unreasonable in an age of austerity. I, for one, remain open-minded about this trend.

Just don’t try to sell me on “drone towers.” You’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

16 Comments

    • Good grief. I’m a female and am, not in the least, offended by the author’s use, or rather non-use of the female gender. Lighten up.

  • It would be good for non controlled airports, let’s leave the controlled ones with human personal on them but it wouldn’t be bad for a backup

  • John, I agree with all your points, and if implemented logically the potential positives (cost AND safety) outweigh the negatives. Many aviators are too stuck in the past to be open to current/future upsides that technology can offer.

  • “Drone towers” (actually, fully-automated ATC) would be better than “remote towers” ever could hope to be. Just the complete elimination of inattention and distractions would be huge. Let’s use that extended squitter datalink for what it was intended for.

    On the other hand, what we would lose are the advantages that accrue from a local controller’s knowledge about local operations – and operators. Their capabilities and limitations; their idiosyncrasies and peculiarities; their cooperativeness and helpfulness; at times, their outright cluelessness. More than half of what transpires in the airspace and on the ground is reflected in what’s “between the lines” that are spoken by the participants on the frequency. In short, local ATC is far more than a featherbedded “clearance delivery” service. You get what you’re willing to pay for.

    • Tom – you make a good point – there is much that a tower controller can and often does for pilots, beyond maintaining traffic separation. Yet, if GA pilots using airports with relatively light activity expect to maintain what is effectively an airport concierge service masquerading as an air safety service, in this age of government cost-cutting (and rightly so!), then such pilots are in for disappointment.

      In any event, most airports that actually offer services of some kind, be it a fully-staffed terminal, or just an FBO, they provide the same kinds of helpful concierge services that many tower controllers do. But not at taxpayer expense. Which is good!

      Automation and technology-enhanced services are the future of this world. Here in my state of Florida, they’re busily tearing down the old toll booths on the toll roads, formerly staffed with friendly toll takers wearing tropical shirts and a smile (unlike the stone-faced toll takers more common in the northeast). As nice as it was to pay your toll and get a smile in return, most people more highly value their time and prefer the drive-thru transponder systems now in use. Doing so not only speeds traffic, but lowers administrative costs which means lower tolls for the users.

      Aviation will see more, not less of this trend towards automation and remote sensing/control of airspace.

  • Remote airport towers make perfect sense for light-traffic and seasonally-variable traffic airports. The technology exists today and the need to cut costs exists as well.

    If a local community really wants to have a fully-staffed airport tower, they always have the option of hiring their own controllers, as many towns or counties already do in relatively light traffic areas. That is already the case at a number of airports where the community highly values the perceived higher status of a control tower.

  • I’m in a quandary about this. Dad was a USAF air traffic controller after WWII, and a good friend of mine retired from the RAF as one. Neither was a pilot, as I am, so there is the question of just how effective these would be. Anything made by man is susceptible to breakdown, whether intentional or otherwise. Anything electronic is highly dependent on weather vagaries, as most of us know, just from our personal experiences at home. Tis system is totally dependent on ultra reliable equipment, which too often, is not what one gets with “lowest bid” projects.
    But how boring a job this could get to be, staring at a screen, or series of them, (depending on how many airports are being monitored,)for 8 hours a day, and maybe, talking to several people, once in a while, during their shift.
    I can see this being a very expensive proposition, initially, then expensive to maintain, especially with the advanced technology of the equipment necessary.

  • This whole thing worries me. Here in Australia we are investigating the proposition of remote towers and all the points made here are valid. However they are suggesting to make the tower at my training airport should go and be controlled by the tower of our international airport, you know they don’t have anything else to do. The bigger worry is that I trained at the airport with the largest trainee flight in our state and perhaps the country with greater than 2000 flights a year and it is increasing with the addition of Malaysian airlines, Cathy pacific and two others sending their cadets here to train them up to ATP level. Yeah, yeah let’s control that lot by remote.
    I can relate one story of a trainee helicopter student who cost me twenty minutes of idle time and embarrassment as my passengers could here the Control tower chatter. The time was spent in the run up bay and I could not be given taxi clearance as the tower could not get the helicopter student to understand they should not be hovering at the end of the runway. The tower tried repeatedly to make themselves understood but this solo student could not or would not comply with orders making the whole situation mega dangerous for the rest of us. They sent a car out in the end with the CFI to get the pilot to follow them. My passengers were frightened. Again I say control that by remote. Personally I think this is a stupid idea in airports like mine but I can see the logic in smaller airports.

  • Technology changes and for the right place a remote tower may make sense. But many things with the FAA seem odd to me.

    Just one example (OK there are many): Why not separate CTAF frequencies near major cities more. We end up with numerous airports on a single CTAF for no good reason. That does not even seem like it takes much money to fix. And yes, there appear to be frequencies available.

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