The Air Force Flight Standards Agency was recently granted an $8 million budget to conduct an evaluation of technology that could change air traffic control for the U.S. Air Force. AFFSA is a tenant unit at Tinker.
An operational assessment by the Air Force and Navy will begin in March 2020 at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Florida to determine whether or not air traffic control remote tower technology could be an effective alternative to traditional brick-and-mortar air traffic control towers.
Throughout the assessment, operational and human capability will be reviewed in providing air traffic services in a remote air traffic control room through the use of visual displays and tools without the traditional window view from a tower cab. A fixed and mobile version of the system will be tested with the intent that the fixed version would be used at select locations and the mobile version would be used for expeditionary cases.
“The program essentially enables us to provide landing and takeoff instructions to aircraft without physically being located at the airport or the runway itself,” Headquarters Flight Standards Agency Executive Director Edgar Wright said. “The technology has advanced to the level where the camera capability enables us to be able to not only see the aircraft through various types of obscurities to the human eye, but it also has infrared capabilities to allow us to see any type of activity that may generate heat, like animal life, humans or vehicles that could cause runway intrusion.”
The program presents time, safety and economic benefits because it would not be required to build a traditional control tower at the site, as the controllers utilizing the technology could be located locally on the base or in another state altogether.
The cost to build a traditional air traffic control tower is about $20 million compared to the fixed remote tower control room which is about $2 million. The time to construct the remote facilities is also dramatically reduced.
Remote towers can be set up and operational from 12 hours for a mobile system to two weeks if it’s being set up as a fixed base system. This is in comparison to the 12-18 months it takes to build a brick-and-mortar control tower. The remote towers will also have the ability to provide air traffic control services to more than one location.
The cameras correlating with the system can be set up on any tall structure, like a mast or building that can get a full view of the airfield and then feeds the visuals into a control room display allowing controllers to control air traffic as if they’re looking out of a window.
“It also has the potential to be used in scenarios where a control tower doesn’t exist and instead of us having to bring in a deployable or portable tower we can just set up the cameras and have the controllers located some distance away, taking them (air traffic controllers) out of harm’s way,” Wright said.
HQ AFFSA Airfield Operations Requirements Manager Capt. Liliana Urrego is overseeing the project and will be at Homestead for the duration of the assessment to evaluate and ensure that all the pieces fit together to meet Air Force requirements.
“This is a joint service initiative. The Navy will be conducting their own tests for a Navy fixed base in Corpus Christi and a Marine mobile tower in North Carolina,” Urrego said. “Air Force Reserve Command was gracious enough to support this initiative and Homestead was found to be an ideal location for this assessment.”
Each phase of the assessment will take seven months. The fixed remote tower system will be assessed from March through September 2019 with the mobile remote tower system assessment taking place October 2019 through April 2020.
This isn’t a new technology. It’s currently being used at two airfields in Germany and the United Kingdom, but Urrego still thinks it’s too soon to determine whether or not the technology will become common in Air Force use.
“Once the assessment is successful, the Air Force still needs to evaluate its requirements in order to determine a timeline for when we’ll start seeing it used,” she said. “I’m optimistic. We should [embrace technology] especially if it helps improve our capabilities as humans to increase our effectiveness and ability to do more with less.”