The government is funding industry work to develop Staffed Virtual Towers (SVT). They’re paying to develop our replacement. The old school, on site, legacy towers with windows will be referred to as OTW facilities (out the windows).
The virtual facilities will replace the 90-something split OTW Towers that were contracted out to Midwest ATC, RVA, Serco and the like. When virtual towers are introduced, operation of the virtual towers will move from the Mom-and-Pops (Midwest, RVA, Serco) to the Big Leagues (Raytheon, Boeing ATC, LockMart).
The plan is not to move a Virtual Tower into each airport. The plan is to install the sensor systems at each airport, and remote the airport workstation to some other location. The Virtual Towers will be located in a very few large, complex facilities that look a lot like the three LockMart FSS hubs. That’s the way Big Industry likes it.
In the virtual tower Hub, there’ll be a Virtual Tower workstation for each airport. When traffic is low or staffing is tight, LockMart managers will combine the facilities up, maybe with one controller watching several airports. They’ll also have the option at non-OEP airports to throw a switch and run the midnight shift on Automated Virtual Tower (AVT).
Almost all the communications in a Virtual Tower will be over datalink, although there will be a voice channel for minimally equipped aircraft. The AVT will have a voice synthesizer to interact with, if necessary.
All the technology to do this exists today, and it is being battlefield tested in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. The same Industry that is going to run the Virtual Towers has changed the military to the point that stateside drone pilots are operating aircraft in Afghanistan, and combat commanders are seeing the whole battlespace on laptop computer screens.
This technology isn’t pie-in-the-sky anymore, it’s being used by young people in real-world situations. This is the military-industrial complex looking for spin-off applications.
Politically, they’re not going to say that they’re using sensor systems to monitor airports, because that might shake privacy advocates. What they are going to say is that these benefits flow directly from NextGen implementation.
The phrase, “Staffed Virtual Tower” has just recently started morphing into “Staffed NextGen Tower”. Here’s a link for proposals to study “STAFFED NEXTGEN TOWER (SNT) SYSTEM ENGINEERING & CONCEPT EVALUATION”.
You might find it interesting to do a Google search on “Staffed NextGen Towers (SNT)“.
Maybe we don’t care about virtual towers, if the implementation goes as I’ve suggested – because we’ll have already lost the work to contractors, anyway. Maybe I just hate to see a skilled task dumbed down. But virtual towers, aka NextGen Towers, are coming. Here’s a timeline from this official US Government powerpoint, slide 9:
Technological change is never neutral, it’s always influenced by the agenda of those who wield the change. All the changes they want to implement in the next five years will be wrapped in two labels: Next-Gen and Carbon Footprint. They don’t really care about either, but it’s a very effective marketing tool. In five years, they’ll shift to new marketing terms.
In fact, I’d like to predict a new term: I think Next-Gen and Green will merge into Next-Gren. You heard it here first.
Again, this is just my opinion. I think we’re going to loose one-third of government Terminal controller jobs because they’re going to split all but the busiest terminals, contract out those towers, consolidate the Approach Controls, and replace the contract OTW towers with Staffed Virtual Towers (SVT) and Automated Virtual Towers (AVT). Those terms are being replaced with Staffed NextGen Towers (SNT) and Automated NextGen Towers (ANT).
With the loss of those towers, we lose power and influence, and our Competitors gain business and credibility. Each of those towers was a place where we had a member of Congress who cared about his District, twenty constituents who could influence them, and a newspaper that would cover the story.
Our profession will lose the human touch. On the midnight shifts, or when the opening daylight controller calls sick, the Automated NextGen Tower will be on duty, all by itself. That’s the death knell of a once vibrant profession. It won’t stop there.