Remote Tower meets Virtual Reality
Air navigation service providers (ANSP) and airports benefit from synergies provided by remote air traffic services (ATS), but many airports with very low revenues are nevertheless unable to afford state-of-the-art remote-tower technology. These predominantly smaller airports often do not provide a full air traffic control service but instead offer lower levels, such as aerodrome flight information service (AFIS), or just a universal communication station, operated by non-air traffic control agencies providing an advisory service to the pilots. The operational environment is less complex, general traffic volumes are lower – mostly one aircraft at a time, and traffic is not separated: instead, traffic advisories are provided, which downsize the scope of operational requirements.
It is possible that a basic video panorama supplemented with a state-of-the-art pan-tilt-zoom camera (PTZ camera), whose video streams are presented by a virtual reality (VR) headset, would be perfectly suitable for those basic service levels and, most importantly: affordable for low-revenue airports.
With such a “very low-cost” remote-tower concept, these airports can generate synergies by becoming connected to remote-tower centres; they can increase their service levels for their customers, which makes them more attractive and ultimately increases their revenue.
The airports could, for instance, extend airport opening hours for later flights, e.g. flight-school training or open a controlled traffic region (CTR) or AFIS at non-ATS airports on pilot request, which is very attractive for certain customers (e.g. commercial flights or foreign pilots).
The remote VR concept consists of a basic video panorama provided by low-cost sensors, a state-of-the-art PTZ camera and a virtual reality environment (VR headset).
This setup is used to present the video panorama and PTZ streams, to control the PTZ camera via a head-tracking function, and to provide human-machine interaction.
It allows the operator to be provided with basic ATS information such as weather, visibility and atmospheric pressure (QNH). The user can operate the PTZ zoom levels, the light board, telephone and radio communication as well as process flight-plan information.
The World ATM Congress in Madrid is the largest event in the field of air navigation and air traffic control. From June 21st to 23rd in Madrid, it combines a major exhibition with a conference. Almost ten thousand specialist visitors from all over the world use this annual opportunity to familiarise themselves with the latest trends and developments in this field. AT-One will be there with several research exhibits at booth no. 351.
The advantages of the remote VR concept are obvious:
- Much lower implementation and maintenance costs – low-revenue airports can afford this technology and thus can exploit remote-tower synergies to increase their service level and, ultimately, revenues
- Location independence – VR headsets can easily be plugged-in and used everywhere where a network is available, even in conventional towers, independent of the ambient light conditions
Prototyping and Validation
DLR, together with students from RWTH Aachen University and Osnabrück University of Applied Sciences, prototyped and tested such a concept. The VR headset was fed with live data from Braunschweig Airport provided by low-cost optical sensors. The trials were performed at the DLR site in Braunschweig with nine German air traffic controllers and aerodrome flight information service officers. Both groups liked the concept and confirmed that it has its potentials, particularly for low-revenue airports with lower ATS service levels.
The Invention of Remote Tower at DLR
The idea of a remote tower was first formulated by DLR in 2002 in a competition for new technology visions. The idea received an innovation award and in 2005, the world’s first remote-tower prototype was employed by DLR at Braunschweig-Wolfsburg Airport to test the concept’s technical and operational feasibility. Several national and international research and development activities followed and numerous ANSPs, such as the Swedish Civil Aviation Administration and the DFS Deutsche Flugsicherung GmbH in Germany, expressed their interest and collaborated with DLR. In 2014, DLR licensed the technology to the industry and in 2015, the first remote-tower installation went operational in Sweden, providing control of Örnsköldsvik airport from Sundsvall. In Germany, DLR initially validated the concept for safety and operational feasibility at its DLR Remote Tower Laboratory. The positive results supported the concept and in December 2018, the DFS went operational at Saarbrücken Airport, its first remotely controlled airport. Erfurt and Dresden are expected to follow next.
DLR has played a major role in the development of remote tower since the original idea and the first prototype. Numerous research activities helped the aviation industry to realise the concept in an exceptionally short time period.
DLR drives the standardisation within EUROCAE working group 100 and is the project coordinator of the largest multiple remote-tower projects in SESAR 2020.