By Greg Smith, vice president, ID Systems Inc.
The costs required to acquire, maintain and operate a fleet of aircraft ground support equipment (GSE) represent a substantial capital expenditure. GSE fleet owners and managers are continually looking to monitor, control and contain these costs. Among the greatest opportunities for cost savings are improving maintenance efficiencies, “right-sizing” the fleet, and reducing costs resulting from vehicle accidents.
Wireless technology has demonstrated a unique ability to help optimize GSE maintenance management and, at the same time, increase security, safety, productivity and fleet allocation. Wireless fleet management systems establish total visibility of — and accountability for — both the vehicles and the people who operate them.
Boosting Maintenance Efficiency, Cutting Costs
The health of a GSE fleet has significant impact not only on the productivity of ground services, but also the ability to meet ever-changing flight schedules and minimize flight delays. A wireless system can provide real-time visibility of both equipment and operators, which enables more accurate, controlled maintenance planning, improved awareness of GSE operational status, and the ability to deploy resources instantly for just-in-time schedule changes.
Wireless technology benefits fleet maintenance management in many different ways:
- Real-time detection, collection and analysis of true vehicle run-time hours: Preventative maintenance is a proven method to reduce unplanned repair costs, but when such maintenance is based on calendar time (or even intermittent hour meter/odometer readings), a huge opportunity is missed. Real-time wireless monitoring of actual vehicle run-time ensures that the right vehicle gets the right attention at precisely the right time — which has been proven to reduce preventative maintenance costs up to 35 percent.
- Real-time monitoring of key vehicle health indicators: Oil pressure, temperature, fuel level, battery voltage and other data points are vital indicators of vehicle health. Real-time wireless visibility of these indicators can prevent small, emerging issues from becoming major repair problems.
- Real-time electronic vehicle inspection checklists: A wireless GSE fleet management system can require vehicle operators to complete a pre-shift checklist electronically. The system will log all checklists automatically for compliance with safety regulations, flag any critical safety or repair issues, and alert maintenance management to serious problems via report, email, or text page.
- Real-time two-way text messaging: When a vehicle needs to be brought in for maintenance, mechanics can use a wireless GSE fleet management system to send a text message to remind the driver. The message will appear to whatever driver logs onto the vehicle.
- Real-time vehicle location visibility: When vehicles need maintenance, mechanics can use real-time location tracking software to see where the vehicles are on a map of the facility. Complete vehicle information (including idle/in-motion status and any flagged maintenance issues) is visible via this graphical software display.
- Remote vehicle disabling and quick retrieval: When a vehicle is overdue for maintenance, mechanics can use a real-time wireless system to lock out the vehicle remotely, then use the real-time location tracking software to pinpoint its location and retrieve it in just a few minutes. Vehicles can also be locked out automatically by the system based on certain conditions or driving behaviors, such as impacts or over-speeding events.
More than Maintenance Benefits
One of the most compelling reasons for investing in a wireless GSE fleet management system is that it can provide much more than just maintenance benefits. Wireless control and visibility of GSE can make a significant contribution to airport security, airside safety and ground handling productivity.
Through driver authentication, location tracking and geo-fencing, wireless GSE fleet management systems provide a last layer of security for parked aircraft against potential terrorist attacks. Vehicle access control (driver authentication) prevents unauthorized personnel from using an airside vehicle — such as a fuel truck — as a weapon. Location tracking and remote vehicle deactivation can be employed to stop suspicious vehicle behavior. And geo-fencing (electronic boundaries of authorized and unauthorized geographic regions within the airport) can trigger automatic security alerts and vehicle shut-down based on defined emergency conditions.
As a safety system, wireless management of GSE has much to offer. Vehicle access control (driver authentication) ensures only fully accredited operators can use the GSE for which they are trained (a mandate of many government health and safety organizations). Vehicle inspection checklists are also often a regulatory requirement, and wireless systems provide the most fool-proof, cost-effective way to administer and enforce such requirements. With these tools — plus impact and speed sensing — wireless GSE management systems establish total operator accountability, which typically results in fewer GSE accidents, fewer injuries to ground handling personnel, and less damage to aircraft. In addition, the geo-fencing and remote shut-down capabilities of a wireless system can prevent GSE runway incursions.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of wireless GSE fleet management technology is the impact it can make on productivity — specifically, the ability to help ground handlers respond quickly, with the right resources, to meet the constantly changing demands of flight schedules. With real-time graphical visibility of vehicle location, finding borrowed or misplaced equipment is quick and easy, eliminating the significant time that is typically wasted searching for such equipment. Two-way text messaging and automated dispatch capabilities also provide GSE managers with a new way to allocate resources “on the fly” and direct work efforts to optimize aircraft turnaround. In addition, wireless GSE fleet management systems enable time-motion studies and peak asset utilization analyses that identify and quantify opportunities for fleet optimization and “right-sizing.”
Choosing the Right Wireless Technology
IT and ground support managers may debate over which wireless technology to deploy to best support the business needs of GSE management. Each technology has positives and negatives, so it is crucial to understand how different wireless systems handle different operational scenarios — especially how they respond to adverse conditions, such as interference from other wireless systems at the airport, saturation of airwaves during emergencies, wireless network outages, and “blind spots” where real-time wireless connectivity may not be available.
The most popular wireless choices are:
- “Closed-loop” long-range RFID-based systems, especially application-specific technology designed for vehicle tracking
- GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) mobile data systems that use third-party cellular networks
- “Wi-Fi” (802.11) systems that work over an existing Wireless local Area Network (WLAN)
Closed-loop RFID technology has many significant advantages, as illustrated in the table below.
At least one major application-specific, RFID-based technology — from I.D. Systems, Inc. (NASDAQ: IDSY) — has the added advantage of having been formally tested by the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and approved for use at US airports by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
GPRS is another popular technology for wireless GSE management. Its main advantages are that it can be deployed quickly and does not touch the local area network at all. But there are many limitations to this technology that make it less than ideal for truly comprehensive, long-term GSE fleet management:
- First and foremost, like any cellular service, GPRS requires ongoing subscription fees, per vehicle per month (for the entire life of the vehicle). This makes it prohibitively expensive to conduct true real-time location tracking, perform time-motion studies, direct work activity, or even collect more than a minimal amount of GSE fleet data.
- GPRS cannot handle an unlimited number of vehicles simultaneously.
- GPRS often has poor or non-existent coverage indoors, and it relies solely on GPS for location data, which does not work at all indoors.
- GPRS systems rely completely on third-party wireless networks and servers, which represent single points of failure that could compromise system or data integrity, and which put system data security and problem remediation beyond the control of local airport resources.
- GPRS bandwidth is usually available — as long as one is willing to pay for it — but, like any cellular network, GPRS is susceptible to saturation and shut-down during times of emergencies (reference cellular networks on 9/11).
Wi-Fi (802.11) systems share a few of the advantages of RFID systems — most notably unlimited wireless data transmissions at no cost, and the ability to work indoors. However, Wi-Fi has many technical challenges that render it the least desirable of the three primary wireless options for GSE fleet management.
First, Wi-Fi has a short range and propagates poorly, which translates into poor coverage outdoors and expensive infrastructure requirements indoors. Likewise, to achieve a high degree of indoor location tracking accuracy, a Wi-Fi system requires an extensive — and expensive — infrastructure installation.
Also problematic is the dependence of Wi-Fi vehicle hardware on the wireless network. If a vehicle goes out of RF range, or a WLAN access point goes down, the system might cease to perform critical fleet management functions, like vehicle access control (driver authentication). Each vehicle also requires an individual network IP address, which can mean IT maintenance and periodic upgrade costs for hundreds, or even thousands, of vehicles.
At a system level, Wi-Fi fleet management has additional areas of concern. All data processing is performed by a central server, which represents a significant single point of failure; if the server goes down, every vehicle is affected. The high flow of IP data to and from the server also consumes a large amount of network bandwidth, which can adversely impact other applications running on the network. Finally, Wi-Fi networks utilize the open 802.11 standard, which is susceptible to attacks by hackers. The security encryption that would be required to use Wi-Fi for GSE management (think access control for fuel trucks) introduces additional system costs, complexities and regulatory concerns.
About the Author: Greg Smith is a vice president of I.D. Systems Inc.