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Future of air traffic control unveiled at Leesburg airport

U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock previews the remote, air-traffic control technology at Leesburg Executive Airport. Times-Mirror/Anna Harris
The air traffic control industry hopes for a boost with the new remote technology introduced for the first time in the U.S. at Leesburg Executive Airport Oct. 26.

Normally, a high traffic airport has a number of controller towers at various points around the air field, allowing for a 360 degree view of the planes as they take off and land.

The new technology replaces the need for more towers with one.

It looks like a crow's nest, and it uses 14 cameras to get a picture of the area. Those images are sent to 14 high definition televisions inside a room, where air traffic controllers continue to do their jobs.

It's real time, though there can be lags, and controllers can select specific screens to darken with “blinds” if glare causes issue.

It's useful for its cost effectiveness, allowing places that can't afford more brick and mortar towers to take on more traffic, and helps those that can afford the towers to be more efficient.

The actual duties are still performed as normal, so the cameras don't reduce the number of air traffic controllers.

The creator of the video and tower system, Saab Sensis Corp., partners with the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and the Town of Leesburg to test the system that actually increases visibility for air traffic controllers.

If all goes well and the FAA approves the technology, the system could be used at airports around the U.S. as a standard.

Leesburg Airport was ideal, in some ways. It's small and relieves much of the traffic from Dulles International Airport, which makes predictability sketch for exactly when planes take off and land, according to Randall Burdette, director of the Virginia Department of Aviation.

The airport houses 239 aircrafts, the second most in Virginia and the most in the state of any non-towered airport.

In a 2011 study, the airport had a $78 million-positive impact every year, he said.

“We think with this kind of technology, we'll seen an increase in the business jets that we have,” Burdette said. “It's a good proving ground.”

The tech has boomed in Sweden, the first country Saab partnered with to use the system. Ireland is working through a contract to get the tech installed as well, making Leesburg and Virginia the second destination for the system in the world.

The actual construction on the remote control tower began in March and finished in June. Then there was the installation and optimization stage, aiming the cameras so the images could be knit together to provide the window view.

“Those aren’t your Best Buy television grade monitors. Those monitors are actually designed to be used to construct large outdoor billboards,” Ken Tollstam, FAA account manager for Saab. “So we adopted that tech because it’s high reliability, high resolution, high brightness.”

The tower and the video system are a potential boost to the air traffic control and controller industry, which has been going through an anticipated, but no less harsh transition phase as the controllers of the past retire and make way for a young workforce. Young as in the current majority – around 73 percent -- of the controller workforce has less than five years on-the-job experience. It's a majority young, minority retirement age or almost with little in-between.

“We're right where we expected to be,” said Melvin Davis, representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). “We made the transition to that younger workforce, and you don't see a change statistically on the safety of the system or in the efficiency of the system, so that's a great thing. We got through a major change from essentially the old guys and gals to the young guys and gals.”

NATCA currently represents around 15,000 controllers. The issues they and other groups deal with is making sure the safety and efficiency of a given air-traffic control system is up, but safety comes first. If an airport reaches a point in traffic density that begins to affect the safety but are unable to increase their controller numbers, that puts a cap on an airport's business and growth.

Technology that's more effective, advanced and easier to use will, hopefully, bring in more interested in the field to help supply a 3,000-body deficit U.S.-wide in the controller field.

“What you see is this technology brings you to a level where I can be more efficient using a word processor than I could a typewriter, but you still have human input and output,” Davis said. “If the technology comes and the controllers come, it might increase the density of operations, so you can sense the more efficient you make something, the more people want to use it because you're increasing predictability … The economic engine starts to grind away when you think about it holistically.”

Follow Anna Harris on Twitter.


How could anyone be that ig… oh, wait.

The article does not mention the important issue of what type of backup systems this set-up incorporates, whether it’s battery back-up or generator for power, and whether it’s easy for the controllers to replace a display unit should one fail.

Another interesting factor would be the cameras’ performance in low-light and inclement conditions and whether the cameras have any “night vision” capability as an additional advantage over ordinary line-of-sight.

Does she have the binoculars backwards?

Could it be different kinds of aircraft oh grounded one?

So where are the controllers that are watching these screens located ?  Also, the plural of aircraft is aircraft; no S on the end.

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