Global Aerospace Offers Insights on the Latest Developments in Use of Remote and Virtual Towers for Air Traffic Control

Global Aerospace

Remote and Virtual Towers – Is This the Future of Air Traffic Control?

A Remote Tower Service (RTS) is a system that allows Air Traffic Control (ATC) and Flight Information Service (FIS) to be provided from a location away from the physical airport tower. An RTS must maintain a level of operational safety equivalent to that of a manned tower.

The world’s first operational approval for routine provision of RTS was granted to the Swedish ANSP Luftfartsverket (LFV) by the Swedish Transport Agency in October 2014. Since then, several countries and regions have embraced RTS. For example, in the U.K., ATC at London City Airport is operated by NATS’ controllers, which are based 115 km away in Swanwick, Hampshire.

air traffic controller

How Does a Remote Tower Service Function?

An RTS combines advanced technology, real-time visual feeds and efficient communication to enhance air traffic control while allowing controllers to operate remotely. In order to get to where we are today, there have been a number of technological advancements that have been crucial to enable this technology to come to fruition. The main one is the ability to transfer data from one location to another without any lag.

There are currently two main producers of RTS systems, and they both derived the technology from military applications before adapting it to commercial uses. An RTS requires a number of high-definition cameras/sensors along with a vast network of signal cabling equipment to allow for fast data transfer ensuring seamless communication between the controller and the aerodrome.

Sometimes, an RTS is responsible for multiple aerodromes, and sometimes, systems are only responsible for one.

Why Use a Remote Tower Service?

  • Cost savings. Building a remote tower typically requires a smaller unoccupied structure to house the cameras and equipment, whereas a conventional tower requires substantially more space. This means the construction costs are far lower for a remote ATC. Additionally, the maintenance costs on a conventional tower are higher due to the physical windows, radar screens and other specialised equipment.
  • Enhanced technology. Due to advancements in technology, air traffic controllers can observe aircraft through poor visibility or at night using infrared or high-definition cameras, or they can also use the enhanced zoom function to potentially spot wildlife on the runway that might not be visible with the naked eye. The remote ATC has advanced even further, providing an array of screens with detailed data such as runway conditions and other critical information. This data is fed into the livestream, meaning the controller doesn’t need to switch views constantly.
  • Staffing. Remote ATC towers are based at one location, which means controllers are no longer present at each airport. For aerodromes that have infrequent usage, you could use one controller to manage multiple aerodromes. This consolidation minimizes staff requirements, which results in cost savings. Given that controllers no longer need to work in a remote environment, there is a better work-life balance, which results in better workforce morale.
  • Safety Improvements. High-definition cameras and infrared technology give controllers better visibility, especially in nighttime operations. This assists with the monitoring of potential hazards. Additionally, through the integration of tracking technology, various sensors can offer multiple viewing angles, improving situational awareness.

Implementation Challenges

Implementing an RTS requires addressing specific challenges, including:

Adapting to new workflows

Implementing new procedures and workflows can be challenging for controllers. Despite the new technology, controllers must maintain the same level of diligence. Addressing potential distractions and fatigue is common practice at conventional control towers. However, this will be more apparent at remote towers as controllers will need to adapt to new workflows/systems. The situation will be even more challenging if controllers are expected to manage multiple airports.

Security and resilience

Given that remote towers rely heavily on technology and uninterrupted data transfer, they must be protected against cyber threats and extreme weather conditions.

Human factors

Remote ATCs can alleviate staff shortages as they require fewer controllers to operate. However, individuals may face stress due to increased workload because they will need to adapt to the new technology and new processes.

Operational efficiency

Remote ATC technology is sensitive and operators will need to ensure that the equipment is properly maintained. Maintenance will be particularly challenging in areas of extreme weather such as low temperatures or high wind. If an RTS is based in a remote location, they may be lacking access to a pool of skilled operators.


ATC operators must adhere to the current regulations and guidelines. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has published guidance on remote aerodrome air traffic services, which builds on an existing framework addressing various aspects such as the design, implementation and operating of remote towers. The U.K. Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has approached regulation of remote towers similarly, where they have updated current policy to take into account modes of operation, personal licensing, camera operating systems and specific considerations.

In the U.S., remote towers are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and are seen as a solution for the National Airspace System (NAS). For each new remote tower, there is a three-year process to decide if it meets the FAA’s certification requirements. However, it must be noted that, as of now, remote tower services are not currently approved for use in the NAS.


Remote control towers represent a significant advancement in air traffic management. As highlighted, some significant benefits include improved operational efficiency and enhanced situational awareness. ATC operators that leverage the advancements in data transmission and digital surveillance technology will, as a result, benefit from enhanced safety and increased productivity.

The implementation of this technology is very much in its infancy, but we will see some larger airports replacing their traditional towers altogether, or, even more likely, they will move to a hybrid model combining new technology with the current infrastructure. Smaller aerodromes with low traffic are likely to adopt this technology sooner, given that they require fewer resources to setup in the first place and are already suffering from staff constraints.

It is not farfetched to assume that remote and virtual towers could indeed be the future of air traffic control.

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