Digital air traffic control centres are scheduled to start replacing towers in New Zealand within the next two years.

Airways' new chief Graeme Sumner said an eventual network of virtual towers will be rolled out first in Invercargill, with a back-up centre in Auckland.

The new system could one day allow for centralised air traffic control from a reduced number of centres, but Sumner said the technology would be introduced gradually.

The digital centres use a series of cameras to provide a panoramic view of the airfield, beamed to a bank of large high-definition screens monitored by controllers.


They 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, and in low light or bad weather, infra-red vision would provide controllers with heightened visibility.

This vision is enhanced with surveillance sensors and microphones. Augmented reality overlays mean controllers will be able to see additional flight data collected via radar, such as aircraft speed, separation between planes and airfield information.

The new digital systems are being rolled out at very busy airports in Europe and in Singapore, said Sumner.

''The opportunity to continue to work with this technology relies on getting your customers comfortable with them - obviously it's a very low risk environment that we can tolerate ... and we would have Auckland as a backup to traditional operations before we move on to a fully digitised environment.''

There were a series of backup cameras and technology to provide redundancy in the event of a failure and Airways was putting a heavy emphasis on building firewalls to prevent the growing threat of cyber attacks.

The centre at Auckland could mean the 52-year-old control tower there will not be replaced as part of wider airport developments.

Airways is working through the regulations and where it will fit into Auckland Airport's master plan after the technology is up and running in other New Zealand locations.

Airways would need the agreement of the airport company and the airlines that the system would deliver the efficiency, safety and capacity needs of the airport in the future.

The costs of the new system had not been calculated. These would be recovered from airline customers.

''It's going to cost a hell of a lot less than a new tower,'' said Sumner.

A new tower could cost anything between $60 million and $70m and would be up to 80 metres high.

The state-owned enterprise unveiled a trial of the technology at Auckland Airport late last year.

Jim Dunn, the director, air traffic controllers, at the NZ Air Line Pilots' Association, said that while they were realistic that the technology was coming, it would require more controller involvement as it was developed.

''We are likely to have some concerns that we'll need to work through but nothing is likely to replace humans, and their decision making, for the foreseeable future," Dunn said.

Sumner said new systems would be introduced gradually.

''Any time there is change there's always the potential for friction but I don't think the pace of change is going to cause difficulties.''

Sumner has a background in leading technology and infrastructure companies, as well as serving on the board of Kordia, and said he was well aware of the cyber security threat to all businesses, including Airways.

''There are people trying all the time - if you look at the number of attempted hits, there's a constant stream of people knocking on your door.''

Of Airways' staff of 800, about 110 were technicians, many of them involved in protecting its systems with the help of outside contractors.

"There's been vulnerabilities around the world. It doesn't keep me awake at night but cyber security is always a risk.''