Sustainable Air Traffic Control

What happens when the need to make the aviation industry sustainable collides with circling jets unable to land because air traffic control (ATC) towers, many decades too old, can’t keep up with the continuing boom in air travel? Curbing carbon emissions and making commercial aviation net-zero by 2050 is a laudable goal being pursued by various governments. But lack of investment at one end of the aviation value-chain is having knock-on effects at the other.

Eco-conscious control towers

In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has had enough. It has begun a “once in a generation … air traffic rehab” to allow “smaller airports to handle more flights more sustainably and more affordably.” The new generation of towers will be designed by Practice for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU), a New York firm using a design that must be “repeatable, modifiable and aesthetically pleasing, as well as economical and rapidly constructible.”

The previous generation of air traffic control towers in the US was designed by I.M. Pei, the creator of the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, in the 1960s. Well over half a century old, these structures are now becoming an environmental hazard and must be replaced.

The new generation of eco-conscious towers is expected to be more cost-effective, more efficient, more sustainable and tailored to the needs of communities. But. These are currently only slated for smaller and municipal airports. Much bigger applications of sustainable air traffic control will be needed to make a real difference to the industry.

Remote air traffic control

In Europe, some countries have tried to go remote. In Sweden a new airport, recently completed, doesn’t even have a control tower. Note however, that the airport handles four flights daily and is owned by the local business community.

However, in April 2021, London City Airport (LCY), a much busier entity, launched its digital ATC tower, the first at a mainstream UK commercial airport. The digital system consists of fourteen high-definition cameras and sensors mounted on a landside mast at the airport. The cameras, providing a 360-degree view of the airfield, are connected to the control room 170km away, via super-fast fibre connection. The timing was providential in a way as low traffic in the early days allowed controllers to train in real-time without having to hit the panic buttons. Now that the world is completely different, or rather back to normal, they are many more issues to deal with from both an air traffic management and air traffic control perspective, a topic for a separate blog. In this conversation, we return to the potential advantages and disadvantages of digital, remote towers

What are the savings?

Estimates suggest energy savings could be in the region of up to 70% with a digital tower centre producing around 50-60 tonnes of CO2 emissions annually compared to an onsite tower which can emit up to 170 tonnes. Data transmission can however cancel a significant proportion of those savings but the figure changes depending on region, the nature of the electricity mix and the factors included in the calculation methodology.

What does all this mean?

What it means is that these are all great baby steps towards greening aviation and making air travel more sustainable. But it doesn’t solve the much bigger underlying problem: a global shortage of air traffic controllers. For instance, in the US, the FAA has told airlines to reduce flights by 10% as there aren’t enough controllers to manage the current load. On the supply side, the pipeline of air traffic controllers in training is too small and shows no sign of growing.

How will the industry and the regulators solve this problem? Is artificial intelligence the answer to that problem? We think it could indeed be a partial, and in many instances, the whole answer to this problem. As innovators in the aviation industry, we offer a solution, especially for owners of small or municipal airports and private airfields. Get in touch to find out more.

For more on sustainable aviation, remote towers and industry regulators curious predilection for towers at all airports, stay tuned for upcoming posts.

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