Camera systems that monitor airports remotely offer many new possibilities for air traffic control and airport operators. However, the costs of purchasing, installing and maintaining the latest remote monitoring technology make it impracticable for airfields with a low volume of traffic and revenue. The German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) has teamed up with the Osnabrück University and RWTH Aachen University to develop an alternative concept based on lower-cost components and Virtual Reality (VR) that will allow these airfields to benefit from remote monitoring.
Virtual reality offers new possibilities for small airports
Many small airports and airfields do not offer their clients complete and continuous air traffic control. “Such airfields have simpler control services, such as what are referred to as flight information services, or simple air traffic service with announcements for pilots,” explains Jörn Jakobi of the DLR Institute of Flight Guidance. "This is sufficient, because such airfields tends to have very little air traffic. Commercial flights by larger aircraft and approaches where the navigation and approach are controlled purely by means of on-board instruments (instrument approaches) take place very seldom or not at all."
Looking through virtual 'binoculars'
The idea for such airports is to have a combination of a single Pan-Tilt-Zoom (PTZ) camera and a simple panoramic view of the airfield, video images from which are displayed using a VR headset. If traffic announces itself via the air traffic radio system, the controller puts the VR headset on and uses it to control the PTZ camera. They capture the aircraft with the PTZ camera and see the corresponding video image. Their head movements allow them to intuitively alter the direction of the PTZ camera, so that they can monitor the airfield site and the traffic in a similar way to using binoculars. To give the air traffic controller a better overall view, the PTZ camera image is supplemented with a simple panoramic image of the airfield.
The VR headset also enables the operator to interact with the workplace systems and other participants. The operator could, for instance, use virtual control elements to communicate with other air traffic control services, operate airfield systems or process electronic flight strips.
A 'pocket control tower'
In their concept, the researchers assume that, in future, small airfields could be connected to a central remote tower centre via this type of remote monitoring solution. In this case, one air traffic controller would be responsible for several airfields, which would theoretically open up new possibilities for small airfields. They could, for example, offer location-independent, time-restricted information and control services that are currently unavailable.
"Above all, we hope to achieve the greatest flexibility while ensuring low implementation costs for small airfields," says Jakobi. "Under the right conditions, this kind of VR headset can be used anywhere, making it a 'pocket control tower'. However, we still need to establish how well it works."
The concept is at an early stage of development. Its usability in practice and the resulting effects are to be investigated and tested as part of further research work at the Institute.
First prototype tested in Braunschweig
An initial prototype has been developed at the DLR Institute of Flight Guidance in Braunschweig and tested at Braunschweig Airport using live data. Nine air traffic controllers and airport flight information service officers took part in a test campaign. While this showed that the use of VR would not be suitable for all airfields, the feedback from the group essentially confirmed its potential, especially for airports with a low volume of traffic and the simplest flight information services.
"The student projects that we carried out here together with Osnabrück University and RWTH Aachen University made valuable contributions towards advancing this innovative concept. We are delighted that collaborating with the universities has proven so successful," says Dirk Kügler, Director of the DLR Institute of Flight Guidance.
Inventing the remote tower at DLR
The new VR concept is a variant of the Remote Tower Operation system developed at the DLR Institute of Flight Guidance. As the inventor of the remote tower concept, DLR has played a key role worldwide in the development and standardisation of this innovative system since the initial idea and the first prototype in the world.
The remote tower concept was awarded a prize for innovation in 2002, in a competition set up to recognise visionary ideas. In 2005, DLR deployed the world’s first remote tower prototype at Braunschweig Airport, aimed at testing the feasibility of the concept. This was followed by various research and development projects in Germany and elsewhere. Numerous air traffic management bodies have expressed interest and have been working with DLR. In 2014, DLR licensed the technology to industry, and the first remote tower installation went into operation in 2015 at Örnsköldsvik Airport in Sweden. In Germany, DLR has validated the safety and usability of the concept in several projects, as well as in conjunction with the German air traffic control service (Deutsche Flugsicherung; DFS). Germany's first remote tower installation, at Saarbrücken Airport, commenced operations in December 2018.