Docking Guidance Systems: Tools for Ramp Management

The new generation of docking guidance equipment provides increased intelligence for ground operations.


In the 1970s airports and airlines began using standard Visual Docking Guidance Systems (VDGS) to improve safety at the gate. A standard VDGS is designed for ramp positioning only and utilizes both human and mechanical elements to guide pilots nose-in and stop aircraft in precise positions to loading bridges and fuel pits. While the level of automation varies by manufacturer, standard docking guidance uses a passive technology and each docking is started manually with a ground agent selecting the proper aircraft type and initiating the docking.

The new generation of docking guidance equipment is a fully automated, active system that ICAO classifies as an Advanced Visual Docking Guidance System (A-VDGS). ICAO ANNEX 14, Volume 1, Paragraph 5.3.25 defines advanced visual docking guidance as those systems that provide pilots with active guidance information in at least three stages: acquisition of the aircraft by the system, the azimuth alignment of the aircraft and the stopping position information. In addition, an A-VDGS must provide accurate guidance to pilots in both seats.

The most commonly used A-VDGS uses three-dimensional laser scanning to identify an approaching aircraft and provide active azimuth and stop guidance via a multi-color LED display. Through its integration and interface capabilities, A-VDGS can identify the position of the passenger boarding bridge to verify that the bridge is safely stowed prior to commencing a docking process. The system also helps ensure the gate area is clear and that incompatible aircraft are prevented from parking at adjacent gates.

In recent years, there is increasing interest in the ramp management intelligence an A-VDGS can provide. While airports around the world have widely adopted the advanced system, originally for its safety benefits, the technology is now taking off in North America where airport and airline operators are recognizing the value of sharing information on the ramp. Through interfaces to airport and airline information systems, the A-VDGS can provide data-sharing capabilities that can be used to further improve ramp operations — including improvements in capacity, traffic flow, safety, irregular operations, fuel burn and environmental performance.

The ability to share data and a real-time overview of ramp activity helps airports and airlines create a safer and more efficient ramp operation that is predictable, repeatable and scalable for the future. While the features and capabilities of an A-VDGS will vary somewhat by manufacturer, the functionality and benefits described below are present in the most commonly used advanced systems.

Automation and Real-time Gate Information Improve Safety

According to the Flight Safety Foundation, airport ground accidents cost airlines more than $5 billion annually, and 82 percent of ramp accidents occur in the gate area with 48 percent of those occurring during arrival. An A-VDGS provides an automated and heads-up approach to docking that minimizes the opportunity for human error and has been proven to reduce the number of gate accidents significantly. After upgrading to A-VDGS, London’s Gatwick Airport reported an 80-percent drop in ramp incidents.

Aircraft collisions with passenger boarding bridges are one of the most prevalent, but preventable, accidents on the ramp. An advanced docking system can interface with any brand or model boarding bridge to communicate the appropriate positioning to the bridge and then verify compatibility with the approaching aircraft before docking can commence. The interface not only eliminates costly collisions with boarding bridges, it saves time when the aircraft door is in perfect alignment with the bridge for deplaning.

Before allowing an aircraft into the gate, the A-VDGS checks aircraft at adjacent gates for compatibility. A failure to match adjacent gate information against a predefined acceptable profile for the expected aircraft will result in an immediate STOP message to pilots, avoiding potential collisions with other aircraft.

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