Remote air traffic control: another loss of skilled workers in Alice Springs?

By ERWIN CHLANDA

 

The air traffic control tower at the Alice Springs airport, built in 1968, may soon become a relic, and four jobs may be taken out of the town.

Airservices Australia is planning a trial beginning late next year of “remote tower technology,” allowing controllers to be based elsewhere in Australia – and conceivably, overseas – working with images and data transmitted by broadband or fiber optic cable.

The current edition of the magazine Flight Safety, published by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, says this would relieve staff from having to live in remote communities and extreme climates: “Attracting controllers to work in such arduous conditions over a long period will become more challenging as time goes on … we can locate the remote tower centre in much more lifestyle-beneficial areas.”

Alice Springs has been singled out for the trial of the Swedish designed system under an agreement between Saab Systems and Airservices Australia.

It says there are currently four air traffic controllers working in the Alice Springs tower and this number has been “relatively stable over the last five to 10 years”.

The trial will not interrupt the airport’s operation, says Airservices.

The technology would allow object tracking and alerting, infrared vision and image enhancement and “predictive software danger of collision”.

Airservices’ Jason Harfield, after attending an air traffic controllers’ global conference in Netherlands, is quoted in the report: “We are not required to provide control tower services for all RPT [regular public transport] aircraft, as some European air navigation providers.”

Alice Springs was chosen because it has a roughly equal mix of Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) and Visual Flight Rules (VFR) traffic, a total of only 65 movements a day – that’s arrivals and departures.

CASA air traffic specialist Jan Goosen says: “Aircraft beyond normal view can be projected on the display as a labelled radar track … this means controllers gain an earlier awareness of aircraft in the vicinity of the aerodrome than is possible by optical means alone.”

But Mr Goosen also says controllers who participated in the trial overseas told him it could be difficult to judge “relative distance and / or position between aircraft when they had to provide visual separation instructions.

“This issue may be overcome by the availability of radar information … and by technique – more reliance on the pilot to see and then follow / avoid,” Mr Goosen says.

In other words, it’s up to the pilots to see and be seen. The Alice Springs airport does not have radar.

The report sings the scheme’s praises: “An onsite controller looking through a window would see an aircraft with the aid of binoculars, but a controller viewing the same scene remotely could see the image magnified on the screen with the aircraft’s type, registration, altitude and airspeed displayed and could be alerted by predictive software if it was in danger of collision with other aircraft.”

But an earlier media release from Airservices recognizes the shortcomings of the remote system: “Weather presents another issue to be contended with. Unlike Europe, we will have to deal with heat, dust and very occasionally, heavy rain at our site in Alice Springs.

“A lack of multiple communication systems in Australia’s sparsely populated interior means providing appropriate back-up paths for critical data in the event of an outage is also a challenging task,” says the release.

“For example, using an available alternative fibre-optic route for path diversity will involve a transmission distance of around 7,000 km.”

Maybe the features of the remote system should be incorporated with the current practice of manned control towers, making them even safer.

Flight Safety magazine sets the scene for its report in this way: “The day’s last flight touched down as the blazing outback sun was hovering over the horizon like a welding torch. The jet taxied towards the demountable building that served as a terminal.”

Alice Springs in the future?

With our CCTVs monitored by cops in Darwin, the heavies of our bureaucracy being hauled out of Alice, and the boss of the CRC branch of Desert Knowledge (not Desert Knowledge Australia!) having moved to Adelaide, maybe we should become sensitive to any more withdrawal of services and the people who run them.

There is a poignant quote from Judith Brett’s insightful essay into the depletion of rural and outback communities (Quarterly Essay Issue 42), commenting on the effects of the banks’ downsizing from their “imposing historic buildings” in the main-streets: “Rural towns were dismayed. Since the founding of these towns, banks had brought in new families: bank managers to join the local golf club and chair fundraising drives, and tellers to play in the football team and marry their daughters. Now all they had was an ATM.”

The other argument in this context worth keeping an eye on is about the high speed broadband: Will it bring expertise to the bush, or take it away?

Photo from Flight Safety magazine.

 

Update Thursday 4.30pm: Airservices Australia said today that the Alice Springs control tower will not be closed unless traffic drops below the levels mandated by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.”

 

Update Friday 3pm: Erwin Chlanda, Alice Springs News Online editor, and Rob Walker, manager of corporate communications of Airservices Australia, were interviewed by the local ABC radio this morning.

Mr Chlanda sought an undertaking that the tower would continue to be staffed with people resident in Alice Springs.

Mr Walker said he was “more than happy to give the assurance that Erwin is looking for, that Airservices Australia has absolutely no plans whatsoever to close Alice Springs tower or to actually implement this technology into Alice Springs on any sort of permanent basis”.

But he added the rider that there were no such plans “at this stage”.

Questioned by the ABC whether the technology could be used “in tandem” with human air traffic controllers Mr Walker said: “That’s correct … we can provide our controllers with a higher level of information than they currently get.”

Mr Walker made it clear that any changes to the tower’s operation would be subject to the requirements of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA).

He said: “CASA is the regulator and they make up the rules on how the airspace is used and we are actually the service provider for the control of the airspace.

“The way CASA works is they are always looking at different airports and different locations around the country … aircraft movement numbers and passenger numbers.

“The decision to add services or subtract services is based on volume of use. There is nothing to suggest that anywhere, particularly Alice Springs, is going to lose or have reduced services.”

The Alice Springs News had not suggested that services would be reduced, but that there may be a possibility of the controllers being relocated if the trial of the remote system was successful.

Mr Walker said a new tower would be built at the airport “which will have a set of cameras on it and that will provide a 360 degree view of the airport and the immediate surrounds.” He said the images will be sent to Adelaide during the trial.

The News has put follow-up questions to Airservices and CASA and we will report the answers as soon as they are to hand.

 

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