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Initial Remote Control Tower Testing Complete At Leesburg Airport

© Leesburg Today - 10/26/2015

Initial testing for the first remote air-traffic control system in the United States is complete at the Leesburg Executive Airport. Now, eyes are on the Federal Aviation Administration, which is expected to rule in January on whether to continue its evaluation of the technology.

The airport and SAAB Sensis Corp. have teamed up to test the system, which is currently used in Sweden and Australia. They hope it can be used at airports all over the United States.

Elected officials and SAAB representatives were at the Leesburg airport Monday morning to celebrate the completion of the 15-week testing period during which air traffic controllers participated in mock trials three days a week.

""We are the first airport in the western hemisphere to have this technology on site,"" Leesburg Mayor Kristen Umstattd said. ""We are all enthusiastically in support of it. … This is an exciting day for Leesburg and Loudoun County.""

The airport ranks as the second-busiest general aviation airport in Virginia, with more than 100,000 takeoffs and landings annually. There could be even more with the development of an air-traffic control system, which could reduce delays, encourage more business planes to land, and create more efficient communication between pilots and traffic controllers.

""This is a great example of a public-private partnership where government and industry work together to drive progress and development,"" President and CEO of SAAB Sensis Corp. Mike Gerry said. ""We look forward to starting the next phase of the demonstration, which will include active controlling at Leesburg airport, and moving toward the ultimate goal of approving this new technology for use in the United States.""

SAAB, which has no affiliation with the car company, designs fighter jets and radar systems among other large projects. It selected Leesburg as the country's first testing spot because of its need for an air-traffic control tower, high level of flight traffic and proximity to SAAB and FAA operations.

Building a standard brick-and-mortar tower is expensive, and can take years to complete. It took eight years for Frederick, MD, airport to get its air-traffic control tower up and running. So the Leesburg Town Council in September approved an agreement allowing the company and the research arm of the Virginia Department of Aviation, VSATS, to test SAAB's new system.

It cost the town $2,000 for two phone lines and electricity.

""This is the perfect place to bring technology, transportation and innovation together,"" Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA-10) said.

SAAB's system involves a crow's nest at the top of the airport building that holds an array of cameras designed to digitally produce a 360-degree view of the airport on 15 video panels in a control room. Air-traffic controllers have the ability to filter the screen for better visibility and can zoom in to specific areas-options not available to regular traffic controllers who monitor airspace by looking out a window.

The testing phase went ""positively,"" SAAB consultant Jerry McDaniel said. He said if the FAA approves the system in January through its Safety Management System requirements, a three-month active testing phase would follow at the airport. It's too early to know when full implementation could move forward, he said.

Not only are the initial cost of installing a remote air-traffic control tower lower than that of a traditional one, the ongoing costs are much lower and controllers can remotely work even if the technology isn't housed at the specific airport they are monitoring.

""We're very proud to be part of this groundbreaking technology,"" President of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association Paul Rinaldi said. ""Leesburg is the perfect place to test it, and this is all part of the cutting edge of next-gen technology.""

If successful, remote air-traffic control towers may be part of the FAA's Next-Gen campaign to improve flight control nationwide at numerous airports.

""We're glad to see Virginia first on this,"" said Virginia Department of Aviation Executive Director Randy Burdette, who has been advocating for this technology for more than three years. ""This has been a true team effort.""

In addition to Comstock and Umstattd, Monday's ceremony was attended by Del. Randy Minchew (R-10), Leesburg Vice Mayor Kelly Burk and Leesburg Town Council members Dave Butler and Suzanne Fox.

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