Digital cyclorama to replace air traffic control towers

 Design Files 2012 06 Saab-Rtwr-Control-550


Saab has designed a digital air traffic control center (top) that harkens back to 18th-19th century cycloramas, such as the Panorama Mesdag (above), which is still in its original location at The Hague. Saab's remote air traffic control tower (r-TWR) would eliminate the need for the traditional windowed towers high above airport terminals. From Smithsonian:

In the r-TWR system, a low-cost mast supports a small platform containing fixed HD cameras that capture a full 360-degree view of an airfield, while a separate remote-control camera offers pan, tilt, and zoom capabilities. Additional tower systems include signal flares, climate sensors, radar systems, and automated hazard detection—all in a relatively small and relatively cheap package. The data collected by the experimental digital tower is live-streamed to an off-site facility where an operator sits at the center of a ring of digital screens displaying live feeds of any r-TWR equipped airport. In many ways, these remote operators have access to more information than their local counterparts. Other than the capabilities to zoom-in with the PTZ camera, the remote system is equipped with infra-red vision, image enhancement, and real-time object tracking software that functions like an augmented reality overlay to assist during low visibility conditions. The r-TWR offers more more reality than reality.

"Saab Reinvents Air Traffic Control With a Digital Panorama"



  1. When ATC systems go down, they pull out the little tin ‘shrimp boats’ and quickly try to put them in the last remembered place on the screen.

    I wonder what they’ll do when this system fails? Send someone to climb the camera pole?

    1.  The military has been flying drones from half a world away for years now. This system and technology isn’t so different. And this: “real-time object tracking software that functions like an augmented reality overlay to assist during low visibility conditions” seems like the best part. Being able to see what isn’t there seems immensely valuable for safety.

      1. Being able to see what isn’t there seems immensely valuable for safety.

        No doubt. But so is being able to see what is there!

        I’m just saying, let’s not go tearing down our glass towers just yet.

      2. The technology itself may not be much different from military applications, but I would be greatly surprised if the security in civilian applications matches military requirements.

        1. I think you may over estimate the security of military systems.  Most big industrial and military networks rely on physical isolation for security (like the Iranian centrifuge facility that got taken out by stuntex, or drown control center in the US) and usually have pretty crap security practices, e.g. hundreds of machines running SOE images which nobody wants to patch/update because the bureaucratic process to get approval will waste you life. 
          I trust these guys more :o)

    2. What they’ll tell you is that the system is redundantly redundant and “hardened” against failure. The live-streaming part in itself presents a whole host of failure modes and opportunities for sabotage. Smart operators will have contingencies in place; others will have to be surprised into developing them after the “unexpected” occurs.
      Having said that, the augmented reality tools really make this system *pop*. I can see the allure of such applications.

    3.  The on-airport tower isn’t TRACON, though.  They direct traffic on the taxiways, clear planes for takeoff and landing, etc.  Their job is very much about seeing what is actually happening on the airport grounds and in the immediate vicinity.

      Because that’s their job, I can’t imagine how this would be allowed – if a camera went out (or someone hit the data cable with a backhoe) they’d have to shut down the airport until it was resolved, or else fail over to actual controllers in an actual tower (hence no cost savings).

      Also, a nice $250 pair of binoculars in the control tower provides very nice “zoom cabability,” and a night vision or thermal imaging scope would do much the same for the other capabilities.

      Is there some actual problem with current control towers (too many stairs!) being solved here?  Is building the control tower a tremendous expense in airport construction?  

      1.  Agree.

        Where I could see this as a real bonus would be at larger uncontrolled airports or airports that are only controlled during certain hours. 

      2. In countries like Australia, there are places it’s just hard to get air traffic controllers to live, and where the rate of aircraft arrival is low enough that adding a couple of controllers to the bill is a hefty drain on the budget year on year.

        So this system gets you  
           a.  Access to a big city controller, or multiple controllers if you suddenly need them. i.e. it scales.
           b.  Synthetic reality.  The system will highlight the flock of birds, and the fox running down the run way, as well as the incoming aircraft.
           c.   Increased safety for smaller airports.  Because for a couple of hundred K they can actually have access to controller 24/7.

        It is also worth mentioning that as ace as a controller with binoculars is, if any part of the current tower system system goes dark (radio comms, radar, person with the flu etc) you’re still in the same hole.

        Remember also that although people always ask, “What if it goes down?”  they rarely ask, “What if she gets a cold and can’t come in?”.

        Systems like this are designed with up-times that of 99.999%+  and will report when they are having an issue that 0.001% of the time. Peoples up time is between 20% – 33.3%.

        1.  “…there are places it’s just hard to get air traffic controllers to live…”
          …for the money being offered. Reminds me of the excuses of agribusiness in the US.  They claim they have to hire undocumented workers because “Americans won’t do these jobs”.  They leave out “…for the crappy wages we want to pay them.”

        2.  That is how it is sold in Sweden, as a way of keeping small mostly municipiality owned airports open within a small budget. It is however well on its way to expand out of that niche market.

        3. While most of your post makes sense,

          Peoples up time is between 20% – 33.3%.

          would mean most people are out sick from work one day per week (even after charitably inverting the fraction).

      3.  I’m a pilot. And a nurse. In the hospital, we just switched over to this “high tech” charting system that records vital signs…blood pressure, oxygen, etc…
        It’s failed three times for more than 24 hour stretches already. Yes, we are a private hospital so money IS a factor and lives are secondary. (You can’t tell me it’s not…been doing this 20 years…)

        Let’s hope the people who put these systems into place have enough backup people ON SITE and ON THE READY to take over if something happens. Our hospital had on site I.T. personnel for ONE frikken week. Then they bailed and made it phone call accsssible.  

  2. Seems like the most sensible shot term implementation would be to drop this into existing towers as an augment, even if it means conventional screens that have to be scrolled rather than the full wraparound.

  3. This is the Minority Report view screen in alpha mode.

    Add a Kinect and get some motion/gesture interface and we can get it to beta mode in no time.

  4.  Jackbird is right. Pretty much all the air traffic control action already happens in windowless rooms. This would be mostly about ground traffic control at airports, with a side order of final approach and takeoff. In a lot of ways this is also an acknowledgement of what we already live with, namely that if the automatics go out the situation is so complex that you’re pretty much up the creek even if you have full manual control

  5. They’ll feel a bit silly when there’s a power cut!
    I guess using cheap foreign labour remotely would keep their accountants happy.

      1.  When the generators start, the radios work fine.  Perhaps the computers will be kind enough to reboot.  Perhaps.

  6. Coming up next: Live video chat with the aircraft cabin with fun effects like  Fire, Stall warning  and Hostages in the background .

  7. Or title it:  “How to spend $100million per airport when you could have put in a window.”
    Tech fails, uber-tech costs more than we can afford.  My wife works for companies that have built airport towers and they are already VERY expensive.  Putting in redundancies for tech when a simple tower with windows ALREADY costs $40-50million in places like hurricane-prone Florida is silly.

  8. geez, I hope none of you guys ever join my improv group. You’d be all, like, “What hat, I don’t see a hat.” Whoopy, you get the rational guy merit badge, can we get back to having fun now?

  9. That should be just peachy keen when it bluescreens.

    What’s with the giant coolie hat?

  10. Sweden prepared for a Russian invasion by making lots of cheap SAAB jet fighters and lots of small runways which actually doubled as roads in some places, all over the country. 

    They are mostly all abandoned now but maintained. This is Saab maintaining a presence in those runways. 

    1. Yes we had such an airforce, most of the wartime base organisation were disbanded after the end of the cold war, almost all the short road runways are disused and many have been converted to 2+2 lanes of wire separated roads.

      About 20 main runways are used for hobby and small scale commerical traffic and those can not afford a manned tower but a pole with cameras etc would be ok and provide for better service.

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