A “remote tower” could let you land at Heathrow – with air traffic control 600 miles away

This new technology already exists, and is part of a quiet revolution in how planes land.

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Imagine this. At the end of a long journey, your plane touches down gently at Heathrow Airport, its air-traffic control tower easily visible from the runway. Then the pilot informs you that the air-traffic controllers who helped guide your plane to the ground aren’t in the tower at all. They are comfortably seated in a room more than 1,000 kilometres away, watching your plane on video monitors rather than looking out of the tower’s windows in London.

This isn’t science fiction. The technology already exists. Known as “remote tower”, it consists of high-resolution video cameras and surveillance sensors that monitor and record movement – of aircraft and other vehicles – at an airport. The information is then transmitted in real time to an off-site location. This allows air-traffic controllers to watch and manage an airport from somewhere other than the on-site control tower.

Control towers have been a staple of airports for almost as long as air travel has been possible. One of the first – constructed in Croydon in 1921 – was little more than a glorified hut. A lot has changed since then. Control towers today are architectural wonders, rising high into the sky, giving controllers a bird’s-eye view of the airport. They can withstand strong winds and seismic forces. And they don’t come cheap.

It cost over £50m to build Heathrow’s control tower, which opened nearly a decade ago. Manchester spent £20m on its tower and Birmingham’s came in at £10m – hardly small change in an era of austerity. Remote towers are expected to cost a fraction of these sums, because structures filled with cameras and sensors are cheaper to build than those filled with human beings.

Sensing a financial windfall, countries are rushing to test the idea. A remote tower in Ireland is already serving an airport from 300 kilometres away. The same has been done in Australia from a facility over 1,500 kilometres away. From Germany to India and the United States, interest in remote towers is taking off. But the technology could deliver more than just cost savings.

In an unassuming building a few kilometres from Heathrow is the virtual control facility (VCF). National Air Traffic Services (Nats) describes it as a “remote off-site facility that almost completely replicates the Heathrow tower”. Almost, because there are no glass windows that controllers can look through to find planes.

Given the VCF’s location away from the airport, there are no planes to look at anyway. Controllers rely instead on surface radar, weather displays and communication consoles to do their job.

The VCF’s purpose is simple: to keep Heathrow running through a control-tower calamity. Such a calamity – say, a tower fire – would normally force air-traffic control services to cease. As a result, planes would be grounded and tens of thousands of passengers would be stranded. It’s hardly an appealing prospect for Europe’s busiest airport.

The VCF aims to prevent this. In the event of an emergency, tower controllers can relocate to the VCF and continue moving some planes. More continuity would result in less disruption. Because the VCF doesn’t include video-imaging capability (controllers cannot see the planes they are directing), it is, in essence, a “lighter” version of the remote tower concept. Yet it shows the potential safety and efficiency benefits of managing planes from off-site locations.

The transition to remote towers will not be immediate. For the concept to work, particularly at large airports, huge amounts of data must be transferred from the runways to the remote location. That might be an attractive target for hackers and the risk of a breach rightly worries those considering the remote tower idea. In order to address these concerns about data manipulation and viruses, controllers will need to devise near-impenetrable fail-safes to thwart potential cyber attacks.

Another challenge is nature. The camera technology used in remote towers must give controllers a clear view of the airport at all times. However, cases have been reported in which insects in front of cameras have blocked the view. Camera outages in the aftermath of a storm can cause similar problems, particularly if they occur at a crucial moment in traffic control.

The concept is forcing the aviation industry to rethink what has been the norm for nearly a century – the notion that a control tower should be at the airport for which it is responsible. And the industry seems to be getting on board. So the next time you want to thank the air-traffic controllers who got you home safely, don’t go looking in the tower: they might not be there. 

This article appears in the 10 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse