Re-elect Dan Lipinski Congressman

Lewis University Airport Eyes Virtual Air Traffic Control Tower



Chicago Tribune


A measure moving through Congress could give pilots who use the Lewis University Airport the air traffic control tower they've been wanting — virtually.

The Aviation, Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization Act, which passed the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee late Thursday, includes a pilot program that would allow the Federal Aviation Administration to pick seven airports to try out a budding technology — virtual air traffic control. There's one test site in Virginia as the FAA considers whether to approve the technology, meant for smaller airports like Lewis in southwest suburban Romeoville.

Instead of a typical on-site tower that houses air traffic controllers, 360-degree cameras placed at the airport are used by air traffic controllers at a remote location.

"It's an example of how technology has really evolved," said Bill Parrot, an aviation professor at Lewis University. "The technology is really moving quickly."

U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski — a Democrat who sits on the transportation committee, and whose district covers Lewis University Airport — included the pilot program in the AIRR Act as a way to try to bring air traffic control to the airport. If the bill becomes law, Lewis would have to apply to the FAA to be one of the seven virtual traffic control test sites.

Because there is no tower at Lewis, which is not uncommon for smaller airports, pilots rely only on communicating with each other via radio and looking out their window to safely take off and land, said Chris Lawson, director of the Joliet Regional Port District, which oversees the airport.

The airport houses more than 160 aircraft and is also used by nearby Lewis University to train aviation students.

Lipinski said adding a tower at Lewis could make it "the No. 1 executive airport in the region," because some pilots avoid the airport due to its lack of a tower. He also said the airport has to bring in a portable tower to handle the traffic during NASCAR events in Joliet.

Airport officials have been working with the FAA to get a traditional tower at Lewis and will continue to do so, Lawson said, citing the airport's 105,000 landings and takeoffs a year. "We just need a control tower. We don't care what kind of control tower it is."

However, a traditional tower will come at about twice the price of the virtual technology, he said. Lipinski estimates implementing the virtual tower at Lewis would likely cost about $2 million.

Lawson and others at the airport went to see the existing virtual test site in Virginia.

"It's amazing technology," Lawson said, explaining how he watched air traffic controllers sit in a conference room, viewing runways depicted on large televisions screens. "The controller operates as though those are windows."

Besides the 360-degree cameras, controllers also use microphones set up on the runway, Lawson said. From the conference room, controllers could hear planes, ground vehicles and even birds, he said. The technology also uses infrared to mark the planes, which controllers can use if weather conditions like fog make it hard to see the planes.

Parrot said the virtual technology at Lewis University Airport would add to the experience for his students. "It would be a great educational tool."

The AIRR Act still must pass through other committees before it reaches the House floor. Lipinski said it could be months before the bill is through Congress.

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