Fort Collins-Loveland Municipal Airport (FNL) is the busiest non-towered airport in Colorado. Air traffic is a busy mix of commercial air service, military operations and a wide variety of private aircraft. FNL will also set the standard for remote tower systems in the United States.
In late July, the Federal Aviation Administration selected Ottawa, Canada-based Searidge Technologies to design, install, test, and certify a Remote Tower System (RTS) at FNL.Jason Licon, FNL’s Airport Director, who did a great deal of public outreach at the airport, reports “lots of support from the base tenants.”
But, many people also wondered what will be the difference to the pilots between the RTS and a traditional air traffic control tower set-up.
“The answer is absolutely nothing,” said David Ulane, Aeronautics Director for the Colorado DOT. “If you are flying around in your 172, it will be completely transparent to you as a pilot. You won’t know you are talking to somebody using a remote tower facility as opposed to a controller sitting in a tower cab.”
In the case of FNL, I wanted to know what features most people might not know about RTS in general, and the Fort Collins-Loveland RTS specifically.
Technology, Yes. Automation. Not So Fast.
Licon noted a prevailing assumption that remote towers include a great deal of automation.
“Technology, in the form of cameras with different abilities, yes,” said Licon. “However, it’s not going to be an automated system. Certified controllers, looking at screens, will still provide the service at a ground based location.”
In the case of FNL, that location will be at the airport.
Cameras + Radar = Synthesized View
On site cameras will be combined with Denver’s TRACON radar data to provide a synthesized view on the screens. So, instead of a controller just looking at a TV screen that is displaying what the camera sees, the controller will be able to see a data tag that includes altitude, squawk code, and more.
“It will really allow controllers to better sequence and separate airplanes,” noted Ulane.
And as cameras and sensors continue to develop, Licon and Ulane foresee the ability to plug that data into the controller displays to allow ever-increasing situational awareness. Avian and FOD radar, as well as forward looking infrared radar, were just three additional abilities Licon and Ulane mentioned.
RTS where it fits
FNL is a busy airport. “Both Jason and I fly out of FNL,” said Ulane. “And I think many of the GA pilots would attest, on a busy Saturday it can be very challenging airport to fly into and out of.”
Which makes adding a “tower” a good fit. The state isn’t trying to put a tower at every airport. For most airports in the state, towers – remote or otherwise – don’t make sense.
Who’ll own it?
Ulane expects the Fort Collins-Loveland RTS will be included in the FAA’s contract tower program. The equipment will belong to the airport, once certified.
Control Multiple Airports from One RTS?
While not part of the initial scope at FNL, Ulane noted other airports in the state have expressed interest in the system. Adding additional airports might consist of camera data being routed to the Fort Collins RTS where another workstation would most likely be added to accommodate the additional airports. But Ulane cautioned they still need to bring the FNL location to full certification first.
What if a plane goes – or is – NORDO?
Searidge has already thought of that. A light gun, mounted on a camera mast, will have pan, tilt and zoom capability. It will be controlled by a joystick at the controller’s workstation. The controller, when necessary, will aim at the aircraft and click a button to send the appropriate signal to the airplane.
The Remote Tower System project, expected to be operating by the winter of 2019, is being funded with $8.8 million from the Colorado Division of Aeronautics. The Division of Aeronautics – which is fully funded by aviation fuel taxes – reimbursed the FAA back in 2013 to make this a reality.
What Fort Collins’ RTS isn’t
As my conversation with Ulane and Licon wrapped up, Ulane made a point of noting what FNL’s RTS isn’t.
“This isn’t robots. This isn’t a work-at-home opportunity. This isn’t outsourced to India or China or some other country. This RTS will be staffed by certificated controllers from the U.S. who will be working here — on site — in our facility at FNL.”
Sounds just like a traditional control tower. And that’s the point.