Airport with no air traffic control tower?

A passenger plane could one day take off from Changi Airport guided by an air traffic controller in a windowless room at the other end of the island in Tuas.

The Straits Times has learnt that the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) is looking into the possibility of introducing remote tower technology.

Instead of having to physically see the planes, the air traffic controller would have high-definition cameras, sensors and microphones to act as eyes and ears on the runway and deliver images.

Such solutions would not only lower the cost of building a control tower, but would also better utilise air traffic controllers, especially at low-traffic airports.

CAAS has partnered air traffic management research centre MITRE Asia Pacific Singapore to study how this technology could be used to "complement or back up" Changi's control tower operations.

A breakthrough in the study could mean that remote air traffic controllers could land planes on the soon-to-be-built third runway, which is 2km away from the main airport and not within sight of the current control tower.

Sources told The Straits Times that the technology might even allow Changi's air traffic controllers to direct planes taking off from or landing at Seletar Airport more than 20km away.

However, a CAAS spokesman said: "Remote tower systems available on the market today have not been developed for busy airports."

Smaller airports in Europe, Australia and the United States have started, or are about to start, piloting such remote systems.

These moves come at a time when the US Federal Aviation Administration, which is facing budget cuts, is looking to close 149 control towers across America.

Last December, Amsterdam's Schiphol airport began testing a remote runway surveillance system to monitor air traffic at its most distant runway, which is 6km from the central control tower.

Ornskoldsvik airport in northern Sweden became the first and only airport in the world to land planes remotely, after the Swedish Civil Aviation Administration gave the system the green light.

Planes taking off or landing there are guided by air traffic controllers located nearly 170km away in the town of Sundsvall.

The Straits Times understands that CAAS officials visited Sundsvall last year to study the system.

Thailand and Indonesia are reported to be interested as well.

Swedish defence contractor Saab is one of the few companies to successfully operate remote tower technology in airports.

Mr Mike Wakefield, who is marketing the system in Asia, said it is a "technology you cannot ignore". He added: "It is too expensive to have people sitting around and managing only three flights a day."

Asked if computer glitches could be a safety issue, he said: "There will be more than enough time for the controller to make decisions in a safe environment."

This article was first published on June 20, 2015.
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