Sweden is the first country in the world to get a remote-controlled airport. That means flights are guided by operators sitting miles away.
This piece originally aired on Morning Edition on Feb. 1, 2015.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Imagine being on an airplane that's being landed by someone sitting miles and miles away from the runway. That's what's happening in a small Swedish town. In the story first broadcast on Weekend Edition, NPR's Ari Shapiro went to see this brand new technology in action.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: As our plane touches down in Sundsvall, Sweden, the horizon is all snow and ice. A small air traffic control tower sticks out above the white horizon. But this airport has two air traffic control centers. The second one is just a short walk from the airport runway.
ERIK BACKMAN: (Unintelligible).
SHAPIRO: We're in a ground floor windowless room. And in front of us is a display that looks exactly like what you would see out of an air traffic control tower. But instead of windows, these are actually screens. So you can see the snowy runway. You can see the trees. You can even see a car pulling into the airport parking lot.
BACKMAN: Yeah. Right now you're looking at Ornskoldsvik Airport.
SHAPIRO: How far is that from here?
BACKMAN: One-hundred-and-seventy kilometers.
SHAPIRO: Erik Backman runs this remote airplane landing center. He explains that the town of Ornskoldsvik has a tiny airport a hundred miles away. And it's expensive to keep air traffic controllers there, who spend hours with no planes to land. So imagine if one team here in Sundsvall could handle both cities.
BACKMAN: The day you have one air traffic controller who can control two airports, then you have some good benefits according to costs.
SHAPIRO: In Ornskoldsvik, a set of cameras and microphones delivers a real-time image to Sundsvall. Of course, new technology is notoriously glitchy. And a problem landing an airplane is far more consequential than a laptop freezing up. Backman says when he saw the first mockup of this technology in 2004, he was dubious. The room had to be dark. The pictures were jumpy.
BACKMAN: I was doubtful that we were going to success with this.
SHAPIRO: But a decade later, they've been landing planes remotely for months without any major problems. Project manager Mikael Henriksson has been an air traffic controller for 40 years. He says in all his time looking out tower windows, there were only three big innovations.
MIKAEL HENRIKSSON: Sunshades, we have got thicker glass because of noise. And we got fly killers.
SHAPIRO: Fly killers. (Laughter),
HENRIKSSON: Yeah because there is a lot of flies in the towers.
SHAPIRO: Now he's had a chance to play with this new technology. And he can't believe it only arrived near the end of his career.
HENRIKSSON: For the air traffic controller, this is like airlines' pilots going from propeller to jet. It's a paradigm shift.
SHAPIRO: Because once the windows are replaced with screens, you can overlay all kinds of information on the display, airplane numbers, runway incursion warnings. You can zoom in or switch to an infrared view to see through thick fog or darkness. That might make this technology useful even for big, crowded airports.
ANDERS CARP: I think we see this worldwide.
SHAPIRO: Anders Carp is head of traffic management at Saab, the company that created this technology. He says this could even have military applications. Instead of putting a control tower in a dangerous place...
CARP: Have a camera house instead. And let the operators be a couple of kilometers from there, in a safe environment instead.
SHAPIRO: Or thousands of miles away in Albuquerque, N.M., I guess (laughter).
CARP: Of course, of course.
SHAPIRO: Because it doesn't matter whether the remote tower is across town or on the other side of the earth. Eventually, a plane descends towards the Ornskoldsvik runway. We watch it move across the screen. The sound shifts in stereo as the plane rolls along. The passengers and even the pilot have no idea whether they've been brought in for a landing from the tower they can see out their window or from this hidden, remote center a hundred miles away. Ari Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.