The Inevitability Of Innovation And Living In The Moment

I had a plan. I was going to try rounding up my fleeting thoughts about the "Wraparound Remote ATC" piece posted over at the Praxis Foundation site but kept putting it off. The Praxis piece was a compelling read for an old fashioned controller like me. Curiosity even drove me over to the SAAB website, where I learned more about their Remote Tower system specifications and read their sales pitch. I would have have called my post "Control On A Pole." Then I thought twice about it and decided against the project. It worried me ~ just like the idea of email and other means of electronic data transfer probably worried our local postman.

Besides that, I usually stick to writing about my past life in ATC. For better or worse, it's my modus operandi. 

Mulling over the idea of a remote tower just brought back bad memories about how vulnerable our air traffic control system is ~ without even thinking about things like control on a pole or NextGen or even the idea of separating airplanes via GPS. Resolving not to write about it was a big relief.

I did think about it though, because SAAB's website gave me so much information to ponder. The longer I thought about it, the more skeptical I became. For instance, they say that fewer employees (controllers) will be needed if you get yourself a Remote Tower and "punctuality will improve." I wondered if they meant air traffic punctuality or the controller's? Well, whatever. Punctuality is all good, right?

They also claim we'll get "enhanced situational awareness!" Now that's something I could never get enough of during my time on the boards. But wait; there's more! SAAB says that "one controller could potentially provide aerodrome control service for two to three towers simultaneously." One controller ~ working three airports? Really? When things go wrong, isn't someone usually hollering about the fact that positions were combined or there just weren't enough people on duty? It was one thing to walk into the TRACON and be told that the Final sector was combined with one of the arrival scopes. Do we now believe sending a controller in to work Airport A, combined with Airport B and/or Airport C is a good idea?

See what I mean? Total skepticism.

Still, SAAB's basic concept (minus their hyperbole) intrigued me, like so many other technological advances have in the past. But really though . . .   

fewer employees (much fewer) . . . 
enhanced situational awareness?
Thinking back on the early days of ARTS (Automated Radar Terminal System), I recall how little the controllers trusted it. Rightly so. Problems were frequent and serious. As time passed ~ RNAV, Automated ATIS, automated Pre-Departure Clearance, TCAS, DSP (don't even ask) and a host of other new systems made their way into our lexicon. Each was greeted with great suspicion by the workforce. Eventually, either the glitches would be worked out (often a painful process) or the idea was thrown out.

Hard as it was, I always tried to keep an open mind. I never wanted to appear so deeply mired in traditional ways of getting the job done that I couldn't appreciate new ideas. They were going to happen anyway; whether I liked them or not. Therein lies the inevitability of innovation. It's really just evolution at work and that's generally a good thing, albeit a bit disconcerting at times. 

If this post was really about control on a pole, I'd have to say my discomfort has nothing to do with the idea itself. Basically, it's feasible and has merit. Get rid of SAAB's utopian claims and I'm fairly sure this thing would work at low density airports. What does concern me is that vulnerability issue I mentioned earlier. Back in the Autumn of '81, after the smoke of a long battle cleared out of the facility, our Chief and a couple Supervisors cracked open the once private locker used by PATCO to store their union business. There, tucked among the clutter of the Local's many scurrilous newsletters, grievance forms, grievance denials and other combustibles, was a large manila envelope. Inside were fragments of their own "strike contingency plan." Fascinating, shocking and sad; the only part I'll mention here is a document that laid out their plan to blow up our radar antenna if the job action failed to meet expected goals. It would have been a fairly simple task to accomplish and, if successful, would have been catastrophic.

At its best, the human element in air traffic control is what makes it work so well. At its worst, the human element is its biggest liability. Speaking from experience.

ATC is and always was a very fragile system. Controller staffing levels fluctuate; generally downward. Radar, radios, landlines, computers and even satellites can and do blink off-line almost as quick as controllers can piss themselves when it happens. Which reminds me; unless the Remote Tower can also it fix itself, I suspect finding a technician to climb that pole when it's 20 degrees outside, with blowing snow or sleet, might prove difficult ~ at least in the mind of a skeptic.

As anyone in the aviation industry will tell you, things go wrong ~ more often than we read about. During my 30 some years in the business, I had my share of unexpected radar, computer and communications failures. Do we really want to consider erecting a "control tower" that could be completely snuffed out from a half-mile away by anyone with a hunting rifle and a good aim? Okay, maybe I'm both skeptical AND paranoid. So, in deference to my paranoia, I'm not going to write about control on a pole. 

I said it before. I'm an old fashioned controller. Workable as it may be, the remote tower idea takes me so far out of my comfort zone that I feel like I'm in orbit ~ some thousand miles or so above reality. I can't even imagine a series of cameras, Internet connections and projectors wired in between me, my airplanes and my airport. Could more practical information about the system make me feel better? Probably. I have to admit though; when it comes to control towers, I'm a glass enclosed son of a light gun who always liked the sound of airplane engines, other controllers and the smell of Jet A. 

For me, it comes down to this. I believe new concepts, their design and development should be like gift giving. People say "it's the thought that counts." There needs to be lots of thought invested before technological and procedural "gifts" are imposed on the aviation community. Sometimes it seems like people are in a hurry to fail. Good ideas are deployed too soon, leaving folks in the field to discover their shortfalls at the least opportune times. That all important first impression turns bad and establishing credibility for the new becomes exponentially more difficult. 

I referred to the law of apporetics in an earlier post. The law states that once an idea becomes plausible it becomes possible and once it becomes possible it becomes inevitable. The remote tower is a good example of a plausible idea making the leap to possible and I am certain of its inevitability. There will undoubtedly be many more plausible ideas put forth in the field of air traffic control and the law will push them to their inevitable conclusion. 

One conclusion? As time goes by there will be fewer controllers. To those who doubt it, I suggest you talk to the unemployed Flight Engineers who believed in the fool's gold of indispensability. In these days of robots and drones, we see an increasing number of job functions that require a decreasing number of people to perform them. Although it is nearly impossible to imagine a National Airspace System (NAS) without any controllers, I am reasonably sure that day will come too. We may not see it in our lifetime but it will come. Watch for a slow, sometimes subtle but inexorable process (like the Remote Tower) and you might actually see that glacier moving forward.

I wouldn't worry about it though. If you are now or ever were an air traffic controller, just be proud of what you are doing or what you did. It's never been done any better, by anybody anywhere. Accept the fact that change is inevitable. Live and be happy in this moment. It's all we really have.

© NLA Factor, 2011


Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure remote towers are that bad an idea. I don't think the plan is just to stick a camera on a pole and go for it - I'd expect a bunch of different sensors (think radar, low-light and regular cameras, infrared, multilateration...) providing a very comprehensive view of the airport with better overall surveillance than simply looking out the window provides - especially in the dark or under reduced visibility conditions. Multiple sensors provide redundancy, and can also directly cover problematic areas where a standard tower might not see very well, like behind a hangar or other obstruction. All of a sudden the tower gets super-eyeballs... maybe not such a scary prospect. Communications are pretty cheap now, too - redundant networking can provide a very low chance of comm and data loss. The ability to remote the service opens up a lot of possibilities for managing staffing better and maybe even moving people from "facility" to "facility" as the workload moves around, just like radar controllers shift positions according to traffic.

I'd like to see the concept worked up and really thought through, but I'm not willing to start from "it'll never work" and go from there. It could certainly be done badly and fall completely flat - but I think it could be done well, too, and actually prove workable. Might even be kind of fun...

No Longer a Factor said...

Thanks for your excellent comments. I learned long ago that "It'll never work" is not a sustainable position to take. Given a sufficient amount of thought and care, I'm sure the remote tower will work.

I also learned long ago that new ideas are sometimes imposed on controllers that did not receive the requisite amount of thought and care. When this happens, it not only results in technical problems but also interpersonal problems - which can be even more difficult to fix.

Thanks again,
NLA Factor

Anonymous said...

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Vannevar said...

Truly well said, and please accept my compliments.

There really isn't any historical record of successful Luddism, no example of a situation where a practical / profitable technology was suppressed because of resistance to change.

The things we're saying today about NextGen are the things people were saying about radar in the early 1950s. Military sure, but radar with civilian traffic? It'll never work.

All you can do - individually and as a profession - is surf the wave and not be swamped by it.

Respectfully, V.

No Longer a Factor said...

Greetings Vannevar. Thanks so much for writing and for the kind words.

Reading your comments had me laughing at myself. They reminded me of a fellow I worked with during my time as a staff specialist at Big Time Tower. When it came to composing memos, facility orders, etc., this guy was known for his copious use of the written word. We’d poke fun at him by saying something like “Why use a sentence when a couple of paragraphs will do?” I am laughing because you managed to capture the essence of my entire Blog post in just a few sentences!

There should always be a measure of healthy skepticism, wariness and critique of anything new (with emphasis on the “healthy” part). I believe it helps keep the world’s dreamers, innovators and inventors focused and more grounded in reality. No doubt, the process can be difficult for them. Eventually though, the “acceptance” phase of any new thing arrives and that can be difficult for the rest of us. The wise ones get over it, while others get hemorrhoids.

Congratulations on your retirement and thanks again for writing. I enjoyed your comments!