Sweden is trying to make flying safer by testing an unmanned control tower that will remove some of the human element out of guiding airplanes.
At the Ornskoldsvik Airport, one control tower has nobody inside. However, the tower continues to perform its job of guiding planes to the ground safely. The person who controls the landing is in another complex, roughly 90 miles away. That individual has access to cameras which reportedly function better than the average human eye.
The system was developed by Saab, best known for its sporty cars and even sportier fighter planes.
Experts in the industry are thrilled about the recent technology upgrade. Searidge Technologies representative Pat Urbanke says, “There is a lot of good camera technology that can do things that the human eye can’t.”
This camera technology can supposedly see better than humans in troubling conditions, such as in the dark and in fog.
There are still legal hurdles that must be crossed before this technology can be fully put into place. However, the Ornskoldsvik Airport is serving as a useful testing ground.
Utilizing this technology is expensive, as it costs an average of $175,000 per year for one controller. It would cost six times this amount to put it to use full-time at Ornskoldsvik, which still mostly uses traditional manned control towers. After the initial cost the operating expenses are minimal relative to their human counterparts.
The 80 foot tall unmanned tower at the airport houses 14 high-definition cameras. Video from the cameras is transmitted to Sunvsal Airport, where a controller guides the planes.
Potential future plans include grouping every airport controller together at distant facilities in order to save costs of running multiple air traffic control towers.
According to experts at the LVF Group, computers are quicker than humans at recognizing differences in the transmission by about one second, a critical amount of time in the high stakes world of passenger aviation. Saab representative Niclas Gustavsson thinks that “eventually there will be no (manned) towers built at all.”
The cameras include microphones which transmit the sound of the airplane yet air traffic controllers testing the equipment are still getting used to the lack of real airplane sounds at the distant facility.
High-pressure wind is pumped over the lenses of the cameras in order to keep them clean of debris, such as insects and dust. The cameras are able to withstand extreme temperature shifts as well.
Saab, the company responsible for this technology, says that the company plans to expand this program beyond Sweden, eyeing Norway and Australia next. The United States will also become a testing ground, as Leesburg in Virginia already has an unmanned tower in place. Trial runs at Leesburg began early last month.
Meanwhile, Searidge Technologies, a rival of Saab, has goals of building an unmanned tower for Hungary’s main airport in Budapest. This airport has around 8.5 million customers on an annual basis. Searidge hopes to have the tower constructed and operating by 2017.