How the FAA Let Remote Tower Technology Slip Right Through Its Fingers

By Robert Mark on September 12th, 2023

In June 2023, the FAA published a 167-page document outlining the agency’s desire to replace dozens of 40-year-old airport control towers with new environmentally friendly brick-and-mortar structures. These towers are, of course, where hundreds of air traffic controllers ply their trade … ensuring the aircraft within their local airspace are safely separated from each other during landing and takeoff.

The FAA’s report was part of President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act enacted on November 15, 2021. That bill set aside a whopping $25 billion spread across five years to cover the cost of replacing those aging towers. The agency said it considered a number of alternatives about how to spend that $5 billion each year, rather than on brick and mortar buildings.

One alternative addressed only briefly before rejecting it was a relatively new concept called a Remote Tower, originally created by Saab in Europe in partnership with the Virginia-based VSATSLab Inc. The European technology giant has been successfully running Remote Towers in place of the traditional buildings in Europe for almost 10 years. One of Saab’s more well-known Remote Tower sites is at London City Airport. London also plans to create a virtual backup ATC facility at London Heathrow, the busiest airport in Europe.

A remote tower and its associated technology replace the traditional 60-70 foot glass domed control tower building you might see at your local airport, but it doesn’t eliminate any human air traffic controllers or their roles in keeping aircraft separated.

Max Trescott photo

Inside a Remote Tower Operation

In place of a normal control tower building, the airport erects a small steel tower or even an 8-inch diameter pole perhaps 20-40 feet high, similar to a radio or cell phone tower. Dozens of high-definition cameras are attached to the new Remote Tower’s structure, each aimed at an arrival or departure path, as well as various ramps around the airport.

Using HD cameras, controllers can zoom in on any given point within the camera’s range, say an aircraft on final approach. The only way to accomplish that in a control tower today is if the controller picks up a pair of binoculars. The HD cameras also offer infrared capabilities to allow for better-than-human visuals, especially during bad weather or at night.

The next step in constructing a remote tower is locating the control room where the video feeds will terminate. Instead of the round glass room perched atop a standard control tower, imagine a semi-circular room located at ground level. Inside that room, the walls are lined with 14, 55-inch high-definition video screens hung next to each other with the wider portion of the screen running top to bottom.

After connecting the video feeds, the compression technology manages to consolidate 360 degrees of viewing area into a 220-degree spread across the video screens. That creates essentially the same view of the entire airport that a controller would normally see out the windows of the tower cab without the need to move their head more than 220 degrees. Another Remote Tower benefit is that each aircraft within visual range can be tagged with that aircraft’s tail number, just as it might if the controller were looking at a radar screen.

Why Erect a Remote Tower?

Cost, for one.

A Remote Tower system can be constructed for a fraction of the dollars required to erect a traditional tower. No bricks, no mortar, no glass, and hence much less labor to make it all operational. That makes them a perfect fit for airports that need to replace their current aging towers or for low-to-medium traffic airports that might currently have no ATC operations at all. Do the math and it’s pretty easy to see that the dollars saved from that $5 billion allotment each year to create a Remote Tower would be significant.

Another benefit is that a Remote Tower can be constructed and become operational in much less time than it takes to build a traditional control tower. This makes a Remote Tower system easily applicable to small airports that might benefit from ATC services but not have enough traffic to warrant controllers living locally to staff the facility.  Thanks to the technology involved, a Remote Tower’s video feeds can be piped into a control room located any distance from the airport. The room could be across the runway, across the road, or across town. That’s why a remote tower could fit well at those low-traffic volume airports.

Of course, there’s a but coming.

Remote Towers are not yet certified by the FAA in the US.

Saab engineers were in fact, close to receiving that needed approval earlier this year until the FAA in June pulled the plug on the test site located at Leesburg Executive Airport (KJYO) just outside Washington D.C. A Saab partnership spokesman explained the choice of JYO as a test site. “We zeroed in on Leesburg because of its complex airspace and the amount of traffic, recognizing as a risk-reward issue here. Every time we briefed somebody about the system, they would say, Oh, yeah, but you’re only doing 15,000 to 20,000 operations and it’s in Sweden. So, we picked the busiest airport we could find in the Northeast US. That became our benchmark.”

When the FAA explained the end of the Remote Tower at Leesburg, they pointed the finger at Saab for failing to prove the efficacy of their Remote Tower system. After diving into the available public documents about the Leesburg Remote Tower, they seem to tell a different story.

As Sherlock Holmes, the world’s greatest consulting detective would say, the game’s afoot.

What Happened at Leesburg

Back in 2015, Saab approached the town of Leesburg in search of a US test site for their then-new Remote Tower technology. If Saab’s test was successful at the non-controlled JYO, that airport would soon begin receiving actual air traffic control services in place of pilots making calls in the blind while attempting to avoid other aircraft.

At the time, Saab again already had several remote towers in operation at airports in the UK and Sweden. London City Airport a busy single runway airport, is now operated completely using the Remote Tower concept. LCY has a rich mix of business aviation and airline traffic in excess of 80,000 takeoffs and landings annually.

As a precursor to installing that full Remote Tower system at Leesburg, the FAA in 2016 wheeled in a portable control tower staffed by contract controllers who began offering ATC services in the newly named Leesburg Maneuvering Area that sits beneath Washington’s Special Use Airspace. Most of the construction costs for the remote tower were covered by Saab. Once the Remote Tower system became operational at Leesburg, the ATC control room was actually operated from an unused airport conference room.

Following FAA guidelines outlined in an Advisory Circular, Leesburg’s Remote Tower ran through a range of increasingly complex tests between 2016, 17, and on into 2018. Early on in the evaluation process, the FAA told Saab in a memo, “that all safety performance targets have been met through all periods of operational use of the Saab, Inc., The Saab RT system is approved for provisional ATC services at JYO.” The FAA did however restrict the Remote Tower operations to single-runway airports like JYO with a runway length of no more than 5500 feet.

Local Leesburg users enthusiastically greeted the airport’s new Remote Tower ATC operation. Before system testing began, annual traffic counts at JYO hovered around 53,000. By the time the Remote Tower system’s plug was pulled in June of this year, air traffic had climbed to 79,000 takeoffs and landings, a 45 percent increase. JYO is home to two FBOs, five flight training operations, five flying clubs, and two additional aviation businesses. Leesburg Airport’s manager Scott Coffman said many new aircraft have chosen JYO as their base, including several jets.

In September 2021, the FAA decided it was time to move the Remote Tower certification up the agency’s food chain. It was about this time that the Saab partnership learned the next group of people at FAA who would be helping to certify the Remote Tower system were engineers in the agency’s Tech Ops division. These people are the ones who normally certify new aircraft and new aviation technology. Saab said as it turned out, “Many of them [Tech Ops engineers], admitted they hadn’t dealt with air traffic systems before.”

Prior to the day when Saab and the FAA began to butt heads at Leesburg, Saab engineers had been working to meet the criteria the FAA had earlier provided them. Then on February 18th, 2022, the FAA published a new advisory circular titled “

“REMOTE TOWER (RT) SYSTEMS FOR NON-FEDERAL APPLICATIONS,” in which the agency altered the requirements Saab would need to meet in order to have its system certified.

Essentially, the FAA moved the goalposts on the engineers at Saab. A Saab spokesman said the remote tower at Leesburg, “wasn’t designed with some of these [new] technical requirements and design verification requirements. If we were starting a brand new development, sure we could comply with what they’re asking for. But to reverse engineer our former design processes … got to be more and more burdensome.” Saab said the company believed reverse engineering the current design might have consumed an additional two to three years and many millions of additional dollars.

In a letter to the FAA from Saab dated Feb 7, 2023, Michael Gerry, VP of surveillance systems said, “Saab, Inc. has been working on [the] Remote Tower with the FAA, Leesburg Airport, and the State of Virginia for eight years. Over the last two years, we have been engaged with the FAA Technical Operations Team to achieve System Design Approval (SDA) for the Saab Remote Tower system. We concluded detailed reviews of three key planning documents that were first submitted in early 2022: Systems Engineering Management Plan, System Safety Plan, and Software Approval Plan. We appreciate the FAA support and the effort of your team to help us learn the approval process for non-Federal systems. Given our better understanding of the newly defined SDA process as captured in the February 2022 Advisory Circular, Saab will no longer pursue approval of the system currently baselined and operating at Leesburg. Instead, we will focus our efforts on assessing the impact of the SDA requirements on our future system offering, which will form the basis for a possible technical refresh of the Leesburg system baseline. We expect this assessment to take several months, after which time we understand that we will need to resubmit our SDA application to the FAA, along with the appropriate intake documents, to reflect our updated system baseline.”

Despite the years of error-free ATC operations using the Remote Tower system at Leesburg, the FAA also demanded Saab build another version of the Remote Tower at the FAA’s Technical Center in Atlantic City. How this new site at a completely unrelated airport would assist the FAA in certifying the Remote Tower was never explained.

In an attempt to salvage the operating Remote Tower at Leesburg, Saab petitioned the FAA, “to consider any and all means to extend the operational viability decision for the current system, including potentially providing a limited SDA, which would allow the current ATC services at Leesburg to continue.” The agency politely declined.

Adding salt to the wound, On February 21, 2023, the FAA made a presentation to the Leesburg Airport commission, explaining the specific mistakes Saab made during its efforts to gain system design approval for the Remote Tower. The agency said, “Early FAA efforts on Remote Towers determined the approval and operation of these systems should be handled under the contract tower program due to their potential safety impacts, like hazardous and misleading information being provided to controllers and the legal liabilities the airport sponsor and the FAA could be in for if there were any accidents of incidents.” Again, in the five years of testing, no ATC errors were ever reported. The February meeting also detailed the next steps required to archive the Remote Tower project files, in addition to disposal instructions for what it considered unnecessary Saab documentation.

In early March of this year, the FAA sent a confusing, almost contradictory letter to Leesburg mayor Kelly Burk explaining that, “We at the FAA understand and appreciate your frustration with the decision to cease remote tower services at JYO, but for safety reasons, there was no other choice to be made. JYO has a solid safety track record operating as a non-towered airport, and we expect that to continue.” How the agency expected to maintain the airport’s safety record after ATC services were withdrawn was also not explained at the time.

A British Airways Embraer departing from London City highlights that airport’s remote tower.

So why pressure Saab to pull the plug on a system that was working well at Leesburg by creating unrealistic demands for the company? No one is completely certain of the FAA’s motivation, but that 167-page guide to building brick-and-mortar buildings may have been involved. About 18 months ago, the FAA also held a webinar explaining the agency’s process to begin replacing those old towers with the more environmentally friendly ones. They also introduced the architects the agency planned to use for the work. I asked the FAA employee in charge of the session if the agency would be considering Remote Towers as a tactical alternative. My question was met with a resounding no. The woman told me Remote Tower technology was not mature enough, a rather odd assessment despite the operational record at Leesburg. Surprisingly, the FAA’s FY23 business plan mentions the Remote Tower idea in a few places such as noting an internal target to update an operational safety assessment in April of this year, just a few months after the agency had made the decision to shut down the Leesburg experiment. The plan also strangely calls for the agency to update Saab’s Remote Tower Compliance Matrix by the end of September, again something unlikely to occur now that the JYO project was halted.


The Aftermath

In February of this year, the Town of Leesburg issued an update on the Remote Tower’s status. The document confirmed that the FAA was canceling the RT program at JYO despite providing ATC services to airport users 10 hours a day since June 2018. The RT shut down completely in the middle of June 2023. That’s when most local users learned of Saab’s reluctance to continue dumping cash into the Remote Tower project when they didn’t believe the FAA would ever certify the system. They also learned Leesburg was at significant risk of losing all ATC services. A Saab spokesman said, “I do think they [the FAA] came at this from a safety standpoint. But they look at it in a very rigid, very limited way. You’ve got a group here that’s not used to certifying this kind of system. And they said, here’s what we require. And until you do that, it doesn’t make it through. We don’t care, because our goal is to make sure everything is 100% or 110% safe.”

An important update to the Remote Tower project appeared in a recent edition of the Reason Foundation’s Aviation News Policy newsletter, written by the foundation’s director of Transportation Policy, Bob Poole. He said, “The Town of Leesburg, VA, has reached an agreement with FAA for continued air traffic control tower operations at the busy general aviation airport. Leesburg will rent the current mobile tower through June 2024, and FAA has agreed to pay the salaries of air traffic controllers operating from that facility for the next five years, while the town begins planning for a brick-and-mortar tower to replace the mobile facility.” The airport manager at Leesburg told me he hopes the FAA will have the new brick-and-mortar building in operation no later than 2030.

Saab hasn’t given up on Remote Towers entirely, however. The company has managed to install several at airports served by the airlines where the facilities serve as an airline’s ramp control towers. The Saab spokesman said leaving the Leesburg remote tower behind, “wasn’t something we took lightly. We feel obligated to help the airport. We want to see the product work, we want to be successful. We put in a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to even get to where we were at Leesburg. We hope this isn’t the end. Certainly, this is a product that is very important to us, around the world outside of the US and inside the US. It’s a market that is still of interest to us.”

Just because the FAA said no to the remote tower idea for now doesn’t mean other countries haven’t embraced the benefits of the technology. Bob Poole also noted that on the other side of the Atlantic, London’s Heathrow Airport plans to build that new Virtual Contingency Backup ATC Facility, replacing the remote operation NATS first created in 2009. NATS is the UK air navigation service provider (ANSP). That original contingency operation, designed to handle about 70% of LHR traffic, was the U.K.’s first remote air traffic control tower and is located off-airport.

Heathrow says their new remote tower backup facility for Europe’s busiest airport will be operational by 2025. Initially, it will use newer technology to provide the same 70% capacity, but a planned second phase would bring it to 100%. It will be interesting to see if, by 2025, Leesburg and the FAA have even broken any ground for their brick-and-mortar facility.

One last note. There was another remote tower test happening in Loveland, Colorado at the Northern Colorado Regional Airport (FNL) using Searidge Technology. Searidge is wholly owned by NATS. A statement from Searidge said the company is not expected to consider the FAA’s requirement to move its test site to Atlantic City.

Here in the US, Raytheon Corporation is said to be teaming up with an Austrian company for a future RT project, so remote tower operations somewhere may yet rise like the Phoenix from the ashes. Reportedly, Raytheon is willing to construct a remote tower test site in Atlantic City, although no timeline for that project has been announced.

A Final Thought

One thing has been gnawing at me since that FAA webinar 18 months ago and after reading through the 167-page guide to building new control towers the agency published a few months back. Building a control tower, or dozens of them actually, especially when the agency has $5 billion each year to spend, represents a whole lot of materials and jobs, unlike a Remote Tower.  I have no proof of course, but I’ve seriously wondered if there might not be some subtle connection somewhere between the agency’s plan for constructing all those new control tower buildings and the seeming demise of the Remote Tower concept.

In the end, this story does highlight, yet again, what FAA controllers have known for years, that the agency is far behind the rest of the world when it comes to employing new technology for ATC.

Rob Mark, Publisher


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2 Responses to “How the FAA Let Remote Tower Technology Slip Right Through Its Fingers”

  1. Jrs3686 Says:

    What actual air traffic service were given by the remote towers? In other words what were the remote tower controllers authorized/required to apply? Runway separation? Sequencing arrivals? Visual separation between IFR aircraft when weather permitted?

    Limited application of air traffic procedures may only provide the same safety effect as changing the regs to require a radio and ctaf communications at uncontrolled fields… Maybe not? Interesting story, thanks for the reporting

  2. Scott Silverman Says:

    As a GA pilot based in the Washington DC area, I fly into and out of Leesburg VA airport several times a year. Until all this news about the FAA not approving the remote tower system came to light, I had no idea that Leesburg had a remote tower. I was provided the same services as any towered airport. In fact on one arrival, the tower controller struck up a conversation about my unusual aircraft (Scoda Super Petrel LS). I didn’t have any idea that he was watching remotely. I guess the proof of the concept of the remote tower system is that pilots receive the same services as a regular brick and mortar tower. It is sad that the FAA can’t pull their head out of their you know what and make this a reality.

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