Research Projects

Virtual Airport Traffic Control and Ramp Control Facilities—Guidance for U.S. Airports In Reserve

The objective of this research project is to provide U.S. airport operators with guidance regarding the potential roles "virtual" ATCTs and ramp control towers can play at their facilities, and their major components and supporting technologies, and the advantages and disadvantages of these virtual facilities relative to their traditional counterparts.

The project also will provide guidance regarding how airport operators, working with the FAA and other key stakeholders, can pursue implementation of virtual ATCTs or ramp towers, including (1) building the use case and concept of operations, (2) developing project justification, and (3) implementing the facility itself.

Background (Describe the current situation or problem in the industry, and how your idea would address it.)

Globally, air navigation service providers (ANSPs) have begun to manage local air traffic operations—defined as those aircraft operations occurring on airports and within approximately 5 to 10 nautical miles of the airport from remote facilities rather than from traditional airport traffic control towers (ATCTs). Such facilities replace visual observation from an ATCT cab with electronic and optical sensors that enable the ATCT environmental to be faithfully replicated, and in some cases, improved upon.
These "virtual towers" permit the air traffic control facility to be located anywhere that has secure electronic communication capability with the sensor networks installed at the airport. It also enables colocation of multiple virtual towers at a single site, potentially reducing operating costs, reducing infrastructure needs, simplifying training logistics, facilitating facility upgrades, providing redundancy, and improving facility security. The most extensive application of virtual towers has occurred in Europe, starting with Sweden and Norway , and now extending to Germany.
Similar concepts have also been applied in the area of airport apron/ramp control, albeit for over a decade at several U.S. airports. More recently in the U.S., the FAA and various air traffic control system vendors have been testing remote ATCT concepts at general aviation airports including Leesburg, Virginia Another notable project is underway in Colorado, sponsored in part by the State of Colorado Department of Transportation.
It is also notable that the U.S. Congress explicitly recognized the importance of virtual tower concepts in Section 161 of the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act, which established the Remote Tower Pilot Program for Rural and Small Communities. This Pilot Program, which is authorized to include up to 6 airports (1 non-hub airports, 3 non-primary airports without ATCTs, 1 airport that participates in the FAA Contract Tower Program, and one airport selected at the FAA Administrator's discretion).
As noted in the Research Objective section above, the proposed research would provide guidance and awareness to U.S. airport operators regarding role virtual ATCTs and ramp control towers could play at their airports.
This research proposal was originally identified in the ACRP Web-Only Document 39, Policy and Planning Issues Roadmap Report, and accordingly reflects some level of industry consensus regarding its importance, relevance, and practicality.

Approach (Describe in general terms the steps you think are needed to achieve the objective.)

We suggest that the research project include the following tasks.
A. Review Current Literature and Research: Review current available literature regarding virtual ATCT and ramp control technologies, capabilities, and applications. This review will include an overview of the applicable U.S. regulations, statutes, and federal guidance that govern the implementation and operation of virtual ATCTs and ramp control facilities.
B. Evaluate Case Studies: Compile case studies of four or more virtual ATCT and four or more virtual ramp tower implementations, with a focus on (1) the rationale the drove the virtual approach; (2) the technologies/capabilities that were used; (3) documentation, testing, and safety evaluations needed to achieve acceptance of the virtual facility; (4) airport involvement during virtual facility development, commissioning, and operation; and (5) how the facility has performed relative to expectations. For this task, it is recommended that these case studies include international airports, such as those in Sweden, Norway, or Germany, where virtual ATCTs are in operation.
C. Develop a Virtual ATCT/Ramp Control Tower Guidebook: Based on Tasks A and B above, develop a guidebook U.S. airport operators can use when considering a virtual ATCT or ramp control facility at their airport that includes a summary of the key advantages and disadvantages of such virtual approaches as well as a discussion of how airports can advocate for and support their implementation.
D. Compile a Resource Guide for Airport Operators. Compile a resource guide that airport operators can use to find out more about virtual ATCT and ramp control technologies.

Cost Estimate and Backup (Provide a cost estimate and support for how you arrived at the estimate.)

Approximate cost: $350,000.
Approximate duration:18 months

Related Research - List related ACRP and other industry research; describe gaps (see link to Research Roadmaps above), and describe how your idea would address these gaps. This is a critical element of a synthesis topic submission.

NASA and the FAA have both conducted significant research into virtual air traffic and ramp control facilities. Several international air traffic research organizations and ANSPs have done so as well (e.g., the Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Joint Undertaking [SESAR], Avinor in Norway, DFS in Germany, Luftfartsverket in Sweden, Airservices Australia).
In addition, operational concepts that align with virtual ATCTs and ramp control facilities have been studied within several ACRP projects. Reports compiled in these projects are:
• ACRP Synthesis Report 29, Ramp Safety Practices
• ACRP Report 137, Guidebook for Advancing Collaborative Decision Making (CDM) at Airports (discusses with aircraft surface management concepts that would be key to integrate into remote ATCT and ramp control facility functionality, especially at busier airports)
• ACRP Report 150, NextGen for Airports: Resources for Airports (touches briefly on virtual ATC concepts)
• ACRP Report 167, Guidebook for Developing Ramp Control Facilities (discusses key airport considerations when developing ramp control facilities)

Idea No. 276