The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

July 19, 2013

Trial run shows airport’s ‘virtual tower’ exceeds expectations

By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

BEAVER — Heading into a new dimension, fraught with uncertainty, one huge question loomed for Dr. David Byers as he led research into a high-tech “virtual tower,” one driven not by human hands but computers.

And that question was, “Is this going to work, or are we just kidding ourselves?”

Deep into an experiment aided by an influx of air traffic — commercial and military — that all meshed with the Boy Scouts Jamboree, Byers of Quadrex Aviation from Melbourne, Fla., was pleased Thursday with his findings.

“It works,” the senior development professional declared, after a lecture aided by graphs and illustrations on a large monitor in the airport’s office.

“I’m very happy with the way this has turned out.”

Aiding the experiment was a radar unit brought in especially for the trial run by DeTect Inc., of Panama City, Fla., whose project manager, Shane Brister, sees the application as applicable, as do others, given the inability of smaller airports to maintain physical towers with people running them.

“I think there’s a market for it and I think there’s a need for it,” he said.

All that is missing, from a technological standpoint, Byers explained, is a component to be furnished by Passur Aerospace of Stanford, Conn., represented by air traffic control specialist John Shaffrey.

Shaffrey pointed out that Yeager Airport in Charleston can use radar to track airplanes using the Beckley facility only if they’re more than 5,000 feet airborne.

“Once you get below 5,000 feet, Charleston loses you,” he said.

“This is not only for the safety aspect but also the efficiency aspect.”

A “virtual tower” can track pilots flying in and departing while picking up obstacles that might appear on the runway, such as a motor vehicle or an animal, Byers said.

“Say there’s a guy at the end of the runway and thinks he can beat you,” the scientist said.

“He pulls out and takes the runway as you get set to land. You don’t know if he’s going to be able to get out there fast enough. That system senses that and puts out an advisory that the runway is unsafe. Or you get a deer out there at night and you can’t see him. But the system would see him, that there’s a critter out there and you need to be aware of it.”

Byers emphasized the “virtual tower” won’t tell a pilot not to land but merely to use discretion and his own judgment.

“We’re not telling pilots what to do,” he said.

“All we’re doing is enhancing their situation. We’re giving somebody a heads up that somebody is out heading your way. Just enough information for you to see and avoid that other aircraft.”

Quadrex is under a $50,000 contract with the Raleigh County Airport Authority to conduct research. If the airport elects to pursue funds, it has been estimated such a system would cost upward of $3 million. Rep. Nick Rahall and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.Va., have vowed to chase federal dollars to see the tower to fruition.

Small airports across the country, struggling to maintain actual towers amid rising costs, are watching the progress in Beckley.

Byers suggested the local airport and the researchers have a plausible story to tell the Federal Aviation Administration about virtual towers.

“We can put together a compelling story that the off-the-shelf technology employs,” he said.

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com