Tech Helps Aircraft Breeze In, Breeze Out

May 16, 2014
Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport adds the cutting-edge AirIT Virtual Airfield Management System (VAMS) to monitor aircraft from the time they land until they pull up to the gate

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport’s $2.3 billion expansion ties in well with the airport’s slogan of “Breeze in. Breeze Out.”

It’s a fitting catchphrase given that the improvements are part of an overalleffort to help the airport, nestled on 1,700 acres in Broward County, Fla., handle more passengers and jet traffic while preserving its reputation as both affordable and convenient.

The enhancements include a new $791 million, 8,000-foot south runway, 10R/28L, which runs parallel to the airport’s north runway. Its presence will give the airport a second runway to handle large commercial jets as well simultaneous takeoffs and landings to boost capacity and flexibility.

Functioning quietly behind the scenes, when this runway opens later this year, is cutting-edge technology expected to change the way airports monitor aircraft from the time they land until they pull into the gate. The Virtual Airfield Management System (VAMS) from Air-Transport IT Services Inc. (AirIT) in partnership with Searidge Technologies relies on advanced technology to manage airfield traffic safely and efficiently from a remote location.

 “When this project is complete, the airport will be able to do their ramp control function from anywhere,” says Jeffrey Shull, executive vice president of Orlando, Fla.-based AirIT. “They could essentially sit in a closed room and just use the display to do ramp control in real time.”

And when fully incorporated into the airport’s existing Airport Information Management System (AIMS), which includes AirIT’s EASE common-use infrastructure platform, PROPworks property and revenue management system, an operational database and a resource management system, Shull says Fort Lauderdale will be “the most technologically integrated airport in the country.”

“The AirIT VAMS system provides native integration with the AIMS operational database, which gives the airport a single source of data consistent with the structure of the existing database design, thus minimizing the risk of data synchronization issues,” says Angie Scott, information systems manager with Broward County Aviation Department (BCAD).

Shull adds that once this system is deployed it will be the first of its kind in the United States. “We’re really looking forward to using this as a flagship site for the virtual ramp control system and then being able to replicate that across the United States,” he says.

The Need for Tech

“Like a lot of airports, Fort Lauderdale does its own ramp control,” says Shull. He explains this airport, which sees 23.5 million passengers annually, handles getting airplanes from the gates to FAA ground-control, and from FAA ground-control into the air. But before this project, the process was totally manual.

BCAD’s visual-line-of-sight ramp control services were limited by the location of the land-side trailer thus restricting the size of the area being monitored, according to Scott. In fact, just 65 to 70 percent of the airfield could actually be viewed by ramp-control agents at any given time.

Shull says AirIT began talking with airport officials about addressing this situation as the airport embarked on its runway project nearly two years ago. Fort Lauderdale officials were looking for solutions as they sat poised to lose approximately 30 percent of their airfield capacity during the phasing of the runway project. (There were to be nine separate airfield reconfigurations during construction.) Officials sought to use technology as much as possible to mitigate the negative impacts of these changes.

Likewise after the project was complete, airport officials wanted to use technology to monitor the now more complex airfield. “They wanted a future-proof ramp-control system that was technology based so that when they integrated the new runway into the airfield, they could manage the entire airfield more efficiently,” says Shull.

High-Tech Tracking

The solution to Fort Lauderdale’s airfield concerns came through AirIT’s VAMS.

“The VAMS will provide video surveillance of the covered areas that will be analyzed by intelligent video software integrated with FAA data to provide a single source for all ramp-control data required to safely monitor an area,” says Scott.

VAMS consists of software that allows for dynamic, real-time tracking of aircraft.  “The VAMS delivers a data feed to a remote location through a camera-based system to monitor both movement and non-movement areas,” says Scott.

One of the first steps to making this solution possible was for AirIT to work cooperatively with the FAA to capture data from its Airport Surface Detection Equipment, Model X (ASDE-X), a tool designed to detect potential runway conflicts by providing detailed coverage of movement on runways and taxiways. This system collects data from a variety of sources to track vehicles and aircraft on airfield surfaces and obtain identification from aircraft transponders.

The FAA agreed to provide AirIT with a continual feed of ASDE-X data, which shows all the aircraft in the movement areas and provides tagging data, including aircraft registration number, airline, aircraft type, flight number and so on.

This feed gave the software real-time data from the movement areas. But it still left non-movement areas without coverage, and that’s where AirIT’s partnership with Searidge became critical.

“ASDE-X is primarily designed to prevent runway incursions; it doesn’t offer any sizable coverage of the non-movement area,” explains Shull. “We partnered with Searidge Technologies to use both thermal imaging and high-definition video to cover all non-movement areas of the airfield, and we fused it seamlessly with the ASDE-X data to create one homogenous feed into the system.”

With this technology in place, if a Southwest Airlines aircraft, for example, lands in Fort Lauderdale, within the ASDE-X feed the software can see the aircraft touch down on the runway and taxi onto a taxiway, and at the point where ASDE-X coverage goes black, Searidge technology picks up the aircraft and follows it to the gate, with all of the ASDE-X tagging data included.

“It’s a full surveillance touchdown all the way to gate,” Shull explains.

Later, because the system is fully integrated into the airport’s operational database and resource management system, when that aircraft picks up a new flight and gets a new flight number, all of that data will be acquired automatically.

Video Tracking in Non-Movement Areas

Coverage of non-movement areas comes in the form of two key components offered by Searidge, according to Fadi Ghourani, Searidge director of ATM/Airport Technology. “One of them is the visual piece which is the ATC-grade video platform and the other is our IntelliDAR system,” he says.

The ATC-grade video platform utilizes multiple video cameras and proprietary software to stitch together a panoramic view of the airfield, much like one would see when looking at the airfield from a window. “But it’s better than looking out the window because the system can zoom in digitally on any target or area of interest,” says Ghourani. “It’s better than the human eye  because you have a panoramic view that is augmented by the capability of pan-tilt zoom cameras, which can zoom in 32 times on any target even those up to a couple kilometers away.”

The system presents gathered data to users in real time. “From the time we process the video from the sensors until we show it to the user on the display, there is a 250-millisecond system-wide latency,” says Ghourani. “It’s definitely in real time, and that’s important because if you’re providing control or advisory information in an airport, it’s critical to know what’s taking place on the ground.”

The ATC-grade video platform is coupled with IntelliDAR or I-DAR technology, which consists of high-end FLIR cameras that look out onto the airfield. The value of this technology is that it works in all weather conditions and at night.

“The thermal cameras are used for low-visibility conditions, nighttime conditions, and inclement weather conditions so that we are reliably and consistently providing track data on all of the aircraft,” Ghourani says. “We’re filling in the gap left by ASDE-X coverage with the thermal imaging cameras, so we’re providing a real-time view of everything that’s happening on the ground all the way to the gate.”

Searidge employed a rigorous site survey process to determine where to place its sensors and cameras, so that they are located in areas that leave a minimal footprint on existing infrastructure and are positioned at vantage points that make sense to controllers. “This makes the captured footage intuitive and easy to understand,” he says.

Project engineers originally considered extending ASDE-X coverage into non-movement areas but that required more antennas. The ASDE-X system requires triangulation, meaning an aircraft has to see three antennas at all times to provide data. However, as aircraft move closer to buildings, there is more reflection off of the aircraft creating a need for more and more antennas. “That just gets cost prohibitive,” says Shull. “And based on the layout of Fort Lauderdale’s airfield, it really didn’t make sense.”

Not only that but with Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) cooperative surveillance technology for tracking aircraft coming online in the near future, investing in older ASDE-X technology in non-movement areas was an expense with a shortened shelf life.

“The advantage of what we’re doing with I-Dar and high-definition video is that in the ADS-B world of the future, this system will still have value because it has the ability to augment the ADS-B feed,” says Shull.

“It definitely gives the airport the flexibility to accommodate changing airfield requirements,” agrees Scott.

Changing the Future Through Integration

AirIT is an integrated solution provider. The modular platform of AirIT’s technology enables airports to add pieces over time, though AirIT can also integrate its technology with third-party products. The hallmark of the Fort Lauderdale project is the extensive integration. “We can now literally follow an aircraft from one point to another,” says Shull. “Even when an aircraft is static at a gate, we know what the outbound number is, we know where it’s going, the airline and so on.”

This has a lot of value inside the airport from an airport intelligence standpoint, adds Shull. Airports can utilize this data to program concessions offerings near a gate so that they make sense for the passenger demographics and the destination of the flights. “The data helps airports make informed decisions,” he says.

VAMS integration with Fort Lauderdale’s AIMS, which includes AirIT’s EASE common-use infrastructure platform, PROPworks property and revenue management system, an operational database and a resource management system, gives the airport many capabilities that didn’t exist before.

For example, there’s a module in PROPworks called Carrier Activity Tracking, or CAT. This helps airports track carrier traffic; a benefit because most carriers self-report their activity, meaning the airline basically tells the airport how much they’ve used the runway and its facilities. Traditionally airports lacked a reliable way to check airline reports for accuracy’s sake and just collected payment without question. By integrating this module with VAMS, the airport can track aircraft in real time, review gate utilization and hard stand, and then automate the invoicing function.

“Self reporting and that sort of thing won’t be necessary once the system’s fully operational,” says Shull. “The whole idea is to provide irrefutable data in those areas so that the airport can invoice without self reporting.”

The system is also scalable, meaning airports can cover as little or as much of the airfield as they want. An airport might only want coverage in the cargo area, for example. Cargo transactions and aircraft activity are also self-reported. “We have airport customers who feel they may be leaving some money on the table in those operations,” Shull says. “VAMS is scalable, so we can cover certain areas of an operation; we don’t have to cover the whole airfield like we do in Fort Lauderdale.”

VAMS also can be expanded to track every vehicle on the airfield. By tracking vehicles with GPS, airports can use the software to provide a holistic picture of what’s happening across the airfield, in both the movement and non-movement areas. “We can track anything that’s moving out there inside VAMS software,” says Shull.

Integration is key to making a project like this work, adds Shull. “You really can’t overstate the value of integration,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if an airport is a 50-million-passenger airport like Frankfort or a 1-million-passenger airport like Myrtle Beach, there is a lot of value in data-level integration. I think going forward you’re going to see more and more ancillary value created out of that.”