Better than humans: the airport where cameras replaced the air traffic controllers

At an airport in northern Sweden, passenger jet movements are managed remotely from 140km away by controllers watching video. It’s a system that could soon become commonplace

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 September, 2015, 12:32pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 September, 2015, 12:33pm

Passengers landing at remote Ornskoldsvik Airport in northern Sweden might catch a glimpse of the control tower likely unaware there is nobody inside.

The dozen commercial planes landing there each day are instead watched by cameras, guided in by controllers viewing the video at another airport 140km away.

Ornskoldsvik is the first airport in the world to use such technology. Others in Europe are testing the idea, as is one airport in the United States. While most of the world’s airports will, for some time, still have controllers on site, experts say unmanned towers are coming. They are likely to first go into use at small and medium-sized airports, but eventually even the world’s largest airports could see an array of cameras mounted on a pole replacing their concrete control towers.

The companies building these remote systems say their technology is cheaper and better than traditional towers.

“There is a lot of good camera technology that can do things that the human eye can’t,” says Pat Urbanek, a project manager at Searidge Technologies.   

Cameras spread out around an airport eliminate blind spots and give controllers more-detailed views. Infrared can supplement images in rain, fog or snow and other cameras can include thermal sensors to see if animals stray onto the runway at the last second.

None of those features are yet in the Swedish airport because of regulatory hurdles.

Ornskoldsvik Airport is a vital lifeline for residents who want to get to Stockholm and the rest of the world. But with just 80,000 annual passengers, it can’t justify the cost of a full-time control staff about US$175,000  a year in salary, benefits and taxes for each of six controllers.

In April, after 18 months of testing a system designed by Saab, all the controllers left Ornskoldsvik. Now, a 24-metre-tall mast housing 14 high-definition cameras sends the signal back to the controllers, stationed at Sundsvall Airport. No jobs have been eliminated but in time such systems will allow tiny airports to pool controllers.

Old habits are hard to break. Despite the ability to zoom in, controllers instinctively grab their binoculars to get a closer look at images on the 55-inch TV screens. And two microphones were added to the airfield at Ornskoldsvik to pipe in the sounds of planes.

“Without the sound, the air traffic controllers felt very lost,” says Anders Carp, head of traffic management for Saab.

The cameras are housed in a glass bubble. High-pressure air flows over the windows, keeping them clear of insects, rain and snow. The system has been tested for severe temperatures: 22 degrees below zero and a sizzling 122 degrees.

Niclas Gustavsson, head of commercial development for LFV Group,  the air navigation operator at 26 Swedish airports, says digital cameras offer many possibilities for improving safety.

Computers can compare every picture to the one a second before. If something changes such as birds or deer crossing the runway alerts are issued.

Saab is currently testing and seeking regulatory approval for remote systems in Norway and Australia and has contracts to develop the technology for another Swedish airport and two in Ireland.

Competitor Searidge is working on a remote tower for the main airport in Budapest, Hungary. That airport serves 8.5 million passengers annually and, within two years, controllers could be stationed a few kilometres from the airport.

Now, Saab is taking some aspects of this technology to the United States. Testing has begun at an airport in the state of Virginia that handles 300 daily take-offs.

Towers for large commercial airports are expensive. They need lifts, air conditioning and heating, fire suppression systems plus room for all the controllers. A new tower in Oakland, California that opened in 2013 cost US$51 million. Towers at smaller airports are cheaper. Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport opened a new one in February at a cost of US$15.4 million. Saab won’t detail the cost of its system except to say it is “significantly less”. There is no need for a tower and lift.

Associated Press