Alice Springs, in the heart of the Australian outback, is the site of indigenous human presence that by some accounts dates back nearly 30,000 years. It is also the site of a modern-day technological marvel. Dubbed “remote tower,” a sensor array allows air traffic services at the regional airfield to be provided by controllers located in the city of Adelaide, nearly 1500km away. While the system is currently undergoing a “non operational evaluation,” the local air navigation service provider hopes to make its use common at airports across the continent.

Manufactured by Swedish aerospace and defense giant SAAB Sensis, the system uses high definition cameras, microphones, and surveillance sensors to provide real-time information about the state of the airfield. When paired with powerful data compression and transmission capability, the result is a technological suite that enables controllers to manage aircraft from a place somewhere other than the local control tower. The prospect of reduced operating costs has spurred interest in the concept. Towers filled with sensors and cameras are cheaper to maintain than offices filled with human beings. The savings are particularly important to smaller airports, where low traffic volume does not justify the high costs of maintaining continuous service coverage.

Safety benefits are also hyped as accompanying the economic savings. According to one report, “An onsite controller looking through a window would see an aircraft with the aid of binoculars, but a controller viewing the same scene remotely could see the image magnified on the screen and could be alerted by predictive software if it was in danger of collision with other aircraft.” Controllers participating in experimental trials seem to agree, voicing overwhelming support for the concept. Such positive feedback was likely a crucial factor in last month’s decision by the Swedish Transport Agency to approve the technology for operational use on the Scandinavian Peninsula. But science suggests there is reason to be skeptical of users’ opinions regarding the effectiveness of technology.

In the mid-1970s, there was considerable industry interest in moving away from the traditional monochromatic radar displays to more modern, visually compelling color displays. Across several trials, controllers in particular, consistently reported that color would help improve their performance. However, in the only study that compared how controllers did to how they thought they did, researchers discovered something surprising. Though controllers believed they performed better when using color displays, in reality, no measurable job improvement was observed. Users mistook the appeal of the technology, its pleasing look and feel, for effectiveness.

With its arc of sleek display panels and stylish controls, the remote tower may well lead controllers to assume its purported safety benefits. The responsibility lies on developers like SAAB to conduct methodologically sound studies that compare controller performance when operating from manned versus remote towers. These studies must answer questions integral to corroborating safety claims. Can controllers just as effectively respond to aircraft emergencies? Are these responses accompanied by any potential pitfalls? In the event that camera technology fails, is there assurance that aircraft will continue to be safely separated?

This is not to dismiss the importance of the remote tower’s look and feel. The user’s experience matters. Controllers deserve to interact with a system that appeals to them, energizes them and engages them, not one that bores or dispirits them. However, in the absence of rigorous assessments based on objective performance data, claims about the benefits of the remote tower to public safety remain unsubstantiated.