News & Politics

Leesburg Airport May Soon Have Remote Air Traffic Controllers

"Nothing systematically troubling" during phase one of testing.

Saab's Remote Tower system has taken over a conference room at Leesburg Executive Airport for testing.

Thousands of small US airports lack air-traffic control towers. And many operate just fine that way—pilots are trained to communicate with one another to signal their intent to land or take off.

But Leesburg Executive Airport is growing, and it already operates in crowded and tightly regulated airspace. The FAA predicts that Leesburg will serve a combined 116,000 takeoffs and landings this year, and more than 200,000 by 2040. (Compare that to a mere 76,000 in 1990.) To boot, Leesburg falls under DC’s Special Flight Rules Area, meaning it’s subject to flight restrictions put in place after 9/11. So an air-traffic control presence could help the airport, just 40 miles west of DC, serve as a portal to more people flying in and out of the Washington area. But building a tower for air-traffic control would cost about $8 million or so.

The answer may be Saab—yes, the car company that inspired cries of front-wheel-drive hatchback lovers when it was dissolved, a casualty of the General Motors bankruptcy reorganization. Saab never really died—its defense and security operations were separate and live on. And in Leesburg it has partnered with the Virginia Department of Aviation (VDOA) to test its Remote Tower technology, which allows an air traffic controller in another location to direct planes during landing and takeoff.

Remote Tower uses high-definition cameras (14 at Leesburg) to create a real-time, simulated view of the airspace surrounding the airport—not unlike what an air-traffic controller might see out of an air-traffic control tower—displayed on a screen at a remote location.

“We’ve taken over the conference room in the terminal building and we’ve turned it into an air-traffic control tower,” says Keith McCrea, executive director of the Virginia STATSLab (Small Aircraft Transportation System), the division of the VDOA that’s partnered with Saab on the test. “Saab put up what they call their ‘Crow’s Nest’—and it is indeed on a tower, on a pole basically—above the airport administration building.” It supports the cameras that provide controllers a view of the environment around the airport.

In this first stage of testing, which began in August and is wrapping up in the coming weeks, controls are passively “measuring their ability,” says McCrea, to control the airplanes coming and going from Leesburg. They are not actually conducting control operations remotely—yet. If the test is successful, it could revolutionize air traffic control (or the lack thereof) at small airports nationwide.

“Multiple airports could theoretically be controlled through a central control facility,” says McCrea. So at some point in the future, a bunch of small airports could pool resources and control their air traffic from one centralized, virtual facility.

The remote system is already in use at Ornskoldvik Airport in northern Sweden, where a dozen or so commercial planes land every day. The cameras’ feeds are monitored at a control center more than 75 miles away. But, says McCrea, “there’s no real test until it’s tested in the US,” because our air space is so much more crowded and complex.

And whereas most new technologies of this magnitude have the potential to displace humans, Remote Tower could actually add more air traffic controllers—albeit, remote ones—monitoring the airspace around facilities that otherwise would have no air-traffic control. Saab and VDOA partnered with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association for the testing.

How’s it looking so far? There’s been “nothing systematically troubling,” according to McCrea. If testing continues to go well, the stystem will be operational—on a testing basis—next year. But as for when the system can operate with FAA certification is, ahem, up in the air. Saab’s North American spokesman John Belanger is optmistic and hopes for a late-2016/early-2017 rollout. But McCrea is doubtful: “Nothing is accepted [by the FAA] when it comes to an implementation or technique unless it’s been dragged through every possible safety net you can conjure up. We’re looking at a couple years anyway, and likely longer.”