Putting the remote in the control tower

Only 75 of India's 476 airports - just 16 per cent - attract scheduled flights. Photo / Getty Images
Only 75 of India's 476 airports - just 16 per cent - attract scheduled flights. Photo / Getty Images

The world's airlines have ambitious plans to double the fleet of commercial jets during the next two decades. The trouble: there won't be enough controllers to help those 44,000 planes take off and land safely.

A shortage of air traffic controllers may rein in expansion by the aviation industry and economic development by emerging nations such as India, which wants to activate hundreds of largely unused runways to spur growth. There is a potential solution, and it resembles a video gamer's dream — a wall of big-screen TVs and a few tablet computers controlled by a stylus.

Some airports are now testing "remote towers" from Saab AB and Thales SA that allow controllers sitting hundreds of kilometres away to monitor operations through high-definition cameras and sensors. The technology is sensitive enough to penetrate fog and detect wild animals on runways, and the companies say it is also cheaper than hiring people to fill vacancies at smaller or remote airports.

"It's a potential game-changer," says Neil Hansford, chairman of Strategic Aviation Solutions, a consultancy firm north of Sydney. "There's a shortage. As you go to more and more airports, it's going to exacerbate the problem."

And plans are moving apace for more and more airports. Worldwide, projects to redevelop or build new airfields surpass US$900 billion, according to the CAPA Centre for Aviation, a Sydney-based consultancy.

By 2030, the world will need another 40,000 air traffic controllers to handle those flights, according to the International Civil Aviation Organisation. Yet, there are so few training facilities in Asia, the fastest-growing travel market, that the region will have a deficit of more than 1000 controllers each year, says ICAO.

Partly because of that, the US Federal Aviation Administration downgraded India's aviation safety rating in 2014 and Thailand's last year. The agency said neither country's civil aviation authority was up to scratch and barred their airlines from offering new services to the US. After India addressed the FAA's safety concerns, its rating was restored last year.

Companies such as Stockholm-based Saab and Paris-based Thales can install towers loaded with cameras and sensors covering 360 degrees overlooking runways to beam high-definition video and sound to a distant control centre. One controller can manage several airports remotely.

"We can see a huge interest from all continents," says Dan-Aake Enstedt, Saab's Asia-Pacific manager. "This lets you operate an airport that might otherwise be too expensive to keep open, or help to smooth the flow of traffic around major airports as they expand."

Saab's system resembles an immersive Imax theatre. A bank of screens on the wall gives the impression of looking out the window onto a remote airfield, with radar blips tracked on a desktop monitor and flights managed by oversized tablet computers that respond to a stylus. Graphics pop up on the screens, and the controller can manoeuvre a zoom camera to take a closer look at the runways or the planes if an anomaly warning sounds.

The technology guides planes into central Sweden's Ornskoldsvik Airport, with controllers monitoring from more than 100km away at Sundsvall-Timra Airport. It was the first remote system installed in the world.

Australia tested Saab's remote tower in Alice Springs. The airport was run from a control tower 1500km to the south in Adelaide. Airservices Australia, the government entity that employs more than 1000 controllers, says it is considering "further evaluation and potential deployment of this type of technology." Thales rolled out its competing version, including night-vision cameras, last month at the air-traffic industry's annual congress in Madrid. The system also is appropriate for war zones and "previously 'unjustifiable' sites," the company says.

Saab senses opportunity in India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi's plan to bolster the economy includes reviving remote airstrips to increase passenger and cargo traffic, says Varun Vijay Singh, marketing director for air traffic management at Saab's Indian business.

Only 75 of India's 476 airports — just 16 per cent — attract scheduled flights. Boeing predicts Indian carriers will need 1740 new aircraft during the next 20 years. Someone has to help land them, Saab's Singh says.
"It's a tremendous opportunity."

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