One size does not fit all Introducing five models of Digital Tower to suit any airport

By Andy Taylor, Chief Solutions Officer, Digital Towers

Digital towers have torn up the blueprint for airport air traffic control that's stood largely unchanged for over 100 years. However, I believe we are only just tapping into their full potential.

The idea that whatever the size or shape of the airport, whatever the operational challenge you're seeking to overcome that the answer is a camera mast that replicates what a controller can already see, is being challenged.

With the right technology - and specifically software - digital towers can be scalable and flexible in what they deliver for airport operations – from the smallest airfield to the world’s biggest hubs.

More than a camera mast

The real transformative power lies in using the technology to augment and improve an existing operation in order to solve a specific problem or challenge, whether that’s the need to cut costs, incorporate new ground-based infrastructure, or provide a contingency facility.

That’s the mission we’ve been working towards and believe we’ve successfully distilled that thinking into five operational models, all of which Searidge Technologies has successfully deployed at various airports around the world.

Importantly, they're also all built on same proven software platform, with scalable hardware, redundancy and applications that can be used to add additional functionality as and when it's needed.

Model One: Digital Tower in Tower

Model One is currently in the process of being deployed with DSNA Miquelon and St Pierre airports. It involves a ‘tower in tower’ digital set up, whereby the smaller of the two airports is controlled from within the 'parent' airport’s existing tower.

The air traffic controller uses a personal video screen displaying live images from the secondary airfield to manage those movements, whilst they and their colleagues can still look out of the window to control as normal at their primary airport.

It’s a neat solution for very small airports with few movements, helping ensure they can still provide a full ATC service but without a controller being deployed to a physical tower location when required or sat full-time in a tower with otherwise little to do. There are any number of airports around the world where this model is highly applicable and where the use of digital tower technology, when used in a different way, can deliver very obvious efficiency gains.

Model Two: Digital Remote Tower

Model Two is where we see the more traditional digital tower, with controllers in front of a single panoramic video wall managing movements on a single runway airport from a location outside of a traditional tower. I won’t dwell on what is by now a well-established concept, but even here we believe there is room for innovation.

The ‘personal video screens’ used in all five models can here be used to provide specific additional views for each controller. Blind spots can be bought into sharp panoramic clarity. The ends of a remote apron or taxiway are suddenly right under the controller’s nose. Of course, this is only possible if we move away from the idea of a digital tower as a single mast with a predetermined number of cameras.

Break that thinking and it can be whatever an airport needs to run better, more efficiently and even more safely.

Model Three: Digital Remote Tower+

Model Three is what is deployed with HungaroControl in Budapest. At the time of deployment, digital towers were beginning to be familiar in Scandinavia, but HungaroControl found the existing solutions unsuitable for an operation of their scale and complexity, with dual parallel runways and approximately 4km between furthest thresholds.

Searidge worked with them on a fully remote facility, but one that used the concept of a combination of two panoramic video walls, one for each of the airport’s runways, and personal screens for each of the controllers to provide auxiliary viewpoints via cameras distributed around the airfield. The system was then uniquely configured to local requirements in a floor to ceiling video display system

Today, the facility serves as a dual contingency and operational environment, one that also saved Hungarocontrol approximately €5 million in capital expenditure and twelve-months in implementation effort.

Model Four: Hybrid Digital Tower

Model Four and we’re back in the physical, traditional tower environment, but this time with the controllers armed with a whole array of additional tools. Again, Searidge has worked with DSNA on implementing this hybrid model at Paris, Orly.

Controllers still manage traffic by looking out of the window, but now they each have their own personal viewing screens to zone in on whatever part of the airfield they’re working on. The air controller can bring the runway holding point directly to them, while the ground controller can get a better view of a particular stand while an aircraft pushes back.

Again, all this is only possible when the cameras are liberated from being housed on top of a single mast.

Model Five: Hub Digital Tower

The fifth and final model is a fully digital primary or contingency facility, suitable for multiple runway, multiple terminal high intensity runway airports. We’re talking the world’s biggest and busiest hubs.

With multiple ultra-high definition panoramic video walls (needed to truly manage airports of this scale and size) to support each runway and terminal, and personalised video screens for each controller, this is ideal as the replacement of a physical control tower or as a fully capable contingency facility.

In fact, given this set up is capable of the same or even greater ATC service delivery than the extant physical control tower, I suspect many controllers and airport operators will end up preferring it. That being the case, it may lead to either the physical tower needing a digital facelift (Model Four), or itself becoming the actual contingency facility.

The revolution is now

The growing maturity of the digital tower technology and application, means I’ve never been surer that we’re on the cusp of total airport Air Traffic Management transformation. With the right technology, digital towers are a fully scalable and flexible concept that can help airports of all shapes and sizes, not just something that’s limited to a few tiny remote airfields.

And all that is before you even begin to throw in the work that’s being done based on Artificial Intelligence; building tools that help controllers manage runway departure spacing, improving capacity in poor weather conditions, and even monitoring radio transmission from pilots and highlighting errors.

The point I’m making is that a digital tower can demonstrably be whatever an airport wants and needs it to be, from the international hub through to the small, but vital remote island airfield, and we are all missing a trick if we allow ourselves to think otherwise.