The dramatic advances in information and communications technology, electro-optical technologies and digitalisation have enabled a revolution to take place in terms of airport air (and ground) traffic control. This was highlighted in a briefing at the Africa Aerospace and Defence 2018 exhibition by Saab VP: civil security (Middle East and North Africa region) David Shomar.
Saab had played a leading – in some cases the leading – role in these developments. He pointed out that remotely-controlled digital air traffic control (ATC) was now operational in Sweden, the Republic of Ireland and in Virginia, in the US.
Saab's digital ATC system involved the use of high-resolution cameras, microphones, digital imagery systems, large high-definition screens, secure digital telecommunications, and the necessary operating software system. The result was enhanced tools for the controllers surpassing the traditional method of having air traffic controllers seated in a control tower and looking out of the windows, using binoculars.
The system allowed the control room to be located away from the airport. No fewer than 14 high-resolution cameras were mounted in a 360-degree array on top of a tower, giving all-round coverage of the airport and its air approaches.
In addition, above these was mounted a high-resolution zoom camera (known as the PTZ camera). This served both to provide a back-up in case one of the 14 fixed cameras failed, and to allow the controllers to zoom in on a specific location or event. Conventionally, they would have to use binoculars for this, but the PTZ camera provided not only the same or better magnification but also a wider field of view than would be possible with binoculars, allowing the controllers to keep observing their controlled airspace while zooming in on a particular location.
The imagery from the digital cameras was displayed on 14 screens in the control room, called the Out the Window Display, arranged in a continuous 360-degree ring around the controllers, who thus had a seamless all-round view of the airport. The system included two microphones, which allowed them to also hear what was going on, thereby enhancing their vision of the controlled environment.
Because of the capabilities of digital technology, controllers could eliminate rain from the displayed images, so downpours would not affect their vision. It also allowed the effects of fog to be greatly reduced. Other very useful attributes of the system included the ability to adjust automatically for different brightness levels and to filter out direct sunlight.
Even without infrared capability, the high-definition digital cameras captured the ambient light to allow a good amount of visibility at night. (The advantage of infrared capability was that it could track flying aircraft and not just aircraft on the ground.)
The system also allowed the visual tracking of aircraft and the display, alongside the aircraft on the screen, of flight and aircraft data. In conventional ATC systems, the controller would have to switch her attention from looking at the aircraft through the window to looking at its information, displayed on a computer screen.
The system automatically detected and tracked anything flying within its range. It was discovered that the resolution of the digital cameras was so high that even small drones were detected and highlighted by the system, thus increasing both safety and security.
The digital technology also allowed full flight and control data fusion, allowing controllers to have all the information they need on all flights on only two or three screens. This is known as the Saab I-ATS system.