Airways is demonstrating a prototype digital air traffic control tower at Auckland Airport - meaning controllers won't need to be at the airfield they are monitoring.

The new equipment allows central monitoring of remote airports, which could be unstaffed, although the state owned enterprise says it is not aimed at cutting the number of controllers.

Similar systems are now being tested at Changi Airport in Singapore and London City Airport, and rolled out across Sweden, Hungary and Norway.

Controllers watch live footage of the airfield from high-definition video cameras.


The demonstration equipment set up at Auckland has 10 cameras mounted on the roof of the control tower which feed pictures to a bank of screens in an office. There are also two infrared cameras.

Under the existing system, controllers manage traffic from a tower that overlooks the runway and use multiple systems to get a complete picture of the airfield.

Airways chief operating officer Pauline Lamb said digital towers were a viable alternative to physical air traffic control towers, with the potential to improve safety through improved aircraft tracking and better visual images.

"For example, cameras can automatically zoom in and track objects that are fast moving or otherwise hard to see, such as birds, which are a serious hazard to aircraft. In low light or bad weather, infra-red would provide controllers with heightened visibility," she said.

Cameras can automatically zoom in and track objects that are fast moving or otherwise hard to see, such as birds, which are a serious hazard to aircraft


Digital towers presented controllers with a huge amount of information and panoramic views of an airfield in more detail than could be seen with the human eye.

Augmented reality overlays mean controllers will be able to see additional flight data collected via radar, such as aircraft speed, separation between aircraft and airfield information. The technology could also be used to improve security.

Airway's manager of future systems, Tim Boyle, said if the technology was adopted it could be more than two years away from being installed. A system for Auckland could cost about $2.5m. Changi, a much bigger operation, had spent more than $7m on the equipment from Frequentis, an Austrian company.

Boyle said there would be back-up systems and redundancy built and Airways was still working through this. Airlines and the Civil Aviation Authority, which must approve of new systems, had watched the demonstration.

The equipment could also store images which could be used for training or help with any incident investigations.

The most recent estimates suggest that demand for air transport in New Zealand will increase by an average of 4.3 per cent a year over the next 20 years. With the arrival of unmanned aircraft, rockets and other new entrants into New Zealand the demand for air traffic management services was increasing.

"In future digital towers could support greater air connectivity, by giving us the option to extend services in areas of New Zealand where the costs of building or servicing a physical tower are currently not cost effective," Lamb said.

Air traffic controllers say digital towers were useful additional resources.

''Where there is no tower or alternative air traffic control (ATC) service, a remote tower can a be an good additional safety resource. However, there is still no better substitute for a conventional person-operated tower," New Zealand Air Line Pilots Association air traffic control director Jim Dunn said.