Not too long ago, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport had hidden computers all over its terminals, stowed away in compartments 20 feet in the air.
They were linked to the monitor screens that show departure, arrival and gate information. Each individual screen had a personal computer - a Dell OptiPlex, to be exact - tucked behind it, uploading information to display on the screen.
It was a woefully inefficient system, but it was the best the airport could do, given the technical challenges. Now it has finally gotten an upgrade, a high-tech system that sends data to the video screens from servers hundreds of feet away.
It's not wireless, but it will save technicians a ton of legwork. With the old system, updating anti-viral software, for example, required them to remove the PCs, take them to a staging area and install new software.
"It was a terrible hassle," said John Parrish, the airport's associate vice president of information technology.
Now technicians doing maintenance work can just walk into the closets that store the servers.
ClearCube Technology Inc. of Austin provided the technology. The company has installed similar systems at one other airport, Las Vegas' McCarran International. It also makes systems for trading floors, hospitals and other places where workers need some access to digital information but can't have or don't require a full PC in front of them.
Samsung Electronics Inc. makes the new, flat-panel screens that passengers see.
The ClearCube system is already installed throughout D/FW's Terminal D, in the airport's car rental facility and the Skylink train stations in other terminals.
Many airlines operate their own flight schedule screens in other parts of the airport, but D/FW plans to work with American Airlines Inc. to supplement its older system with ClearCube's technology. Terminal B is next in line.
The more screens D/FW can replace, the better for passengers, Mr. Parrish said.
Giving the flight information monitors a common look and feel makes it easier for travelers to spot them, he said.
A feat of technology
Supplying up-to-date information on large video screens is something of a technological feat.
Some airports simply broadcast the information in a system akin to a closed-circuit TV network, but the type of cable required for such a network is fairly expensive.
Sending the data over a computer network has its drawbacks, too.
The typical connection between a computer and a monitor - the same type used on home computers - doesn't work over long distances.
The technology exists to transmit the video data from a server to a monitor through modemlike devices, but it's expensive, too, Mr. Parrish said.
That's why it made sense for many years for D/FW to use individual PCs behind each monitor, despite the unwelcome maintenance challenges.
"I've not really ever thought about it either," said Ken Knotts, senior technologist at ClearCube. "But the data's there, and a PC is having to get that information."
To work on the older system, technicians often had to rope off the area underneath, interrupting passenger traffic, and climb up ladders to do their jobs.
"If you've ever had to go from one gate to another to catch a flight, you know how long of a walk it is," Mr. Knotts said.
"If two PCs, three PCs crash a day, you're walking miles to fix a machine."
In the new system, ClearCube servers translate the video data into computer code, then transmit it through the network to small boxes behind the video monitors.
Each box translates the computer code into video that can be displayed on three screens.
So what happens to the old Dell computers?
The airport won't be redeploying them elsewhere, Mr. Parrish said.
"They do still run, but no, the technology in them is too old to make them useful for anything," he said.
At times, one security checkpoint at D/FW Airport may become choked with passengers even as checkpoints a short walk away stand completely empty.
The new generation XControl 2 airport exit from ADT's Federal Systems Division is expected to come to Dallas/Fort Worth Airport in August.
Just months before the launch of a program aimed at speeding some travelers through airport security checkpoints, the airline industry is growing dubious about the effort.
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