NZ’s first digital air control tower coming to Southland

Construction of the first digital air traffic control ‘tower’ in New Zealand will begin next month in Invercargill and will help “enhance safety and improve air connectivity” in Southland.

The concept, which has been trialled in Singapore, London and other airports in Europe, allows air traffic controllers to direct traffic from a remote location by watching live footage of the airfield from high-definition video cameras.

The vision is then enhanced by surveillance sensors, flight data and augmented reality overlays, which provide air traffic controllers with a panoramic view of the airfield in more detail than is possible with the human eye.

Invercargill’s digital tower will first operate from a building to be constructed next to the existing tower on the airfield, before eventually moving off-site to a centralised hub that will provide services for a number of regional locations.

The system is being installed by air navigation services provider Airways and general manager for air traffic services Tim Boyle said they were taking a phased approach to introducing the digital tower to Invercargill.

He said the camera mast and supporting infrastructure for the digital tower would begin being installed next month, with construction expected to be finished early next year. This would be followed by an extensive period of “functional testing and staff training” before the tower goes live.

“During the testing and trialling phase, the digital tower will work alongside the existing tower. Controllers working in the physical tower will continue to manage flights into and out of Invercargill Airport, while controllers in the digital tower housed in a separate building on the airfield will be ‘shadowing’ but not actually managing live traffic.”

Mr Boyle said the tower would then require CAA certification before it could begin active operations, which it hoped to achieve by mid 2021. Until then the digital tower would continue to be manned by controllers based at the Invercargill Airport.

“The technology is designed to increase safety through better aircraft tracking ability, enhanced imaging and the introduction of safety nets. For example, cameras can automatically zoom in and track objects that are moving or otherwise hard to see, such as birds which are a serious hazard to aircraft. In low light or bad weather, infrared camera technology will provide controllers with a much clearer view.”

Invercargill Airport general manager Nigel Finnerty said the airport was “Southland’s gateway to the world” and the tower would help future-proof the airport to ensure they were able to safely and efficiently meet the ongoing needs of all those who fly into the region.

This article was originally written for The Advocate. You can read the published version here

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