Vision on the implementation of new technology in the control tower

Air traffic control’s naked eye: A vision on future technology in the control tower 

The utmost concentration at an altitude of 100 metres. From the Schiphol control tower the air traffic controllers look over the hotels and airport buildings to the airport. Their eyes are focused on a complete overview of all the aircraft taxiing, taking off and landing. Even today, air traffic control in control towers is based on visual observation. Not much has changed over the past 70 years. Or has it?

Technology has come knocking at the control tower’s door
More and more new technology and new systems contribute to safety and efficiency. A growing number of screens, all displaying useful information. Information to which air traffic controllers also need to pay attention. And they have to combine that with the information they get from looking outside.

A vision on the control tower of the future
How can we prepare for the changing world, in which humans and (future) technology work together in the control tower? This question was key to the study financed by the Knowledge & Development Centre (KDC) foundation. “We developed a vision on this in conjunction with the National Aerospace Laboratory (NLR),” project leader Mariska Roerdink of Air Traffic Control the Netherlands (LVNL) explains. “This vision lays the foundation for the further development of the air traffic control tower at Schiphol.”

The naked eye and the digital eye
How do humans and technology work together? One classic example is radar. Has thick cloud cover deprived the controllers of visibility? If so, radar systems indicate the exact position of aircraft. Yet in good visibility air traffic controllers can easily see for themselves where the aircraft are. “We used a literature survey to describe this human-machine interaction now and in the future,” Roerdink says of the KDC study. 

Navigation systems and air traffic control
Changing human-machine interaction requires a vision on the future. Roerdink: “What if air traffic controllers were only to look at screens? Take the navigation systems built into cars. These systems are handy as you receive information which you cannot see from the car, such as routes and traffic jam lengths. Yet if you look at navigation systems, you don’t see what is happening on the road in front of you. There is a growing trend in the car industry to project more and more information onto the window. The time you spend looking at screens is at the expense of the view out of the car, but where do you draw the line? Where can technology complement the current modus operandi? These are the questions we asked in the KDC study.”

Augmented reality
The great thing about new technology is that information can easily be filtered and combined, such as with augmented reality. It doesn’t yet seem possible but you never know, air traffic controllers of the future might look out of the control tower through special glasses and look directly at relevant, additional information. This might include the destination of a taxiing aircraft, local wind speed and inbound aircraft. 

Nine trends for the future
Technology should add safety and efficiency to looking outside. A great image of the future is the intelligent agent: dedicated software which acts as an additional team member. This is one of the nine technological trends described by the KDC study which could be applied in air traffic control in the future. Together, these trends provide a sketch of what control towers might look like 25 years from now.

The future role of air traffic controllers
In any future projects on the tasks of air traffic controllers the KDC study will be a source of inspiration. “Humans are still very much needed in this profession. We are more creative than machines and can work together better. Our eyes are also very sharp. We can sometimes see more than a machine both in daylight and at night. For instance, cameras have difficulty with strong light or sharp contrasts between light and dark. You can often see more with the naked eye.”

A starting point for further development
“This study enables us to be prepared for a changing world,” Roerdink says. The study resulted in a vision on the use of technology in the control tower and a series of practical rules for implementing future changes to the control tower. 

Parties involved

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