New technology could make air traffic control towers obsolete.

London Gatwick Air Traffic Control Tower
Credit: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

There are no air traffic controllers at London City Airport. In fact, when you fly into this international hub, the people in charge of maintaining the airspace are 80 miles away.

The airport is the first in the United Kingdom to introduce a groundbreaking remote digital air traffic control (ATC) center. By 2020, the airport plans to manage its ATC services entirely with a series of cameras and the remote control center.

A company specializing in air traffic control (and spearheading development of the new ATC centers), called NATS, insists the remote towers are the way of the future.

“It might take a little bit of excitement out of [being at the airport] but other than that, it is no different,” Steve Anderson, head of airport transformation at NATS, told The Telegraph.

Digital control centers are already in operation at three airports in Sweden. The first opened at the regional Örnsköldsvik Airport in April of 2015. And NATS plans to expand and open digital control centers at major airports in Budapest and Singapore next.

While digital air traffic control towers are being heralded as innovative and cost-effective, the prospect may seem terrifying to some. After all, how could people 80 miles away respond to an emergency?

NATS insists there is “redundancy on top of redundancy” to ensure the camera feed never fails. For example, there are three different points of connection for the fiber cable between London City Airport and the remote control center. (It’s even been tested by cyber security experts and deemed safe from hackers.)

The cameras are designed to reduce glare from the sun and override any disturbance from a potential laser attack. They're also bulletproof, and come with attached compressed air jets, which can push away bugs from the lenses.

NATS digital air traffic control tower
Credit: Andrew Matthews - PA Images/Getty Images

In addition to security, NATS believes that a digital, remote air traffic control tower is “significantly more cost effective to build,” while simultaneously freeing up space at the airport.

The remote centers look deceivingly simple. There’s a desk with two seats facing 14 panels of curved HD screens. These screens provide a 360-degree view of the airspace around the airport.

According to NATS, the screens at the remote center are like the human eye, only better. At night, the operators are even able to see stars in the sky from their screens. There are also AR overlays that allow ATC operators to quickly read information about current weather conditions and flights. At each station, air traffic controllers have access to computers, radar, and radios to communicate with pilots, other controllers, and staff at the airport.

As long as the controllers can see and hear the airplanes as they approach and take off, NATS says the towers can be located anywhere in the world — and air space can be effectively managed remotely.

“There is little doubt that this is the future, and the days of control towers that are architectural masterpieces have been consigned to history,” NATS said in a blog post on their website.