Consolidating Surveillance

Sept. 22, 2009
NextGen surface technology improves situational awareness; operational efficiency

Surface surveillance technology is becoming increasingly prevalent at airports nationwide. The concept is to give operations officials across the airport a real-time view of the precise location of all surface traffic, and to use that data to streamline operations and exploit efficiencies. AIRPORT BUSINESS takes an in-depth look at two types of this technology; one which provides an asset management solution for ground support equipment, another that consolidates ground surveillance technology into a comprehensive view of an airport’s surface traffic.

Advances in technology are constantly changing the airport dynamic and the way operations officials are communicating with each other. Surface surveillance technology is a working example of this.

Speaking to members of the House Committee on Science and Technology late last year regarding operations at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), FAA senior vice president for NextGen and operations planning Vicki Cox stated, “Last summer, a plane holding on a ramp for hours might not have had an option to turn back to the gate readily, because no one could see where all other aircraft were located on the ramp or at the gates.

“With the addition of NextGen technology,” she testified, “surface operations are no longer a ‘black hole’ at JFK.”

This is due in large part to the Sensis Corporation’s Airport Surface Detection Equipment, Model X (ASDE-X), a runway incursion detection and alerting system that is now in use at 18 U.S. airports, and is planned by FAA to be deployed at a total of 35 airports by 2011.

ASDE-X combines surface movement radar, multilateration, and Automatic Dependent Surveillance- Broadcast (ADS-B)to provide air traffic controllers with accurate, real-time position and identification of all aircraft and vehicles on the airport surface.

In 2007, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Mary Peters led a task force to develop recommendations to reduce congestion at New York’s airports. Based on the recommendations, the FAA expedited the deployment of ASDE-X at JFK and then decided to expand the multilateration coverage to include gate surveillance. The FAA selected Sensis Aerobahn to monitor and measure surface operations at JFK to address potential changes to airport operations.

The latest installation at JFK, Sensis’ Aerobahn, is a web-based airport management tool which combines airside operational information with aircraft position data gathered by various airport surface surveillance systems. Says Sensis business director for airport automation Dan London, “There are multiple ways to get surveillance data at an airport; Sensis’ core surveillance technology is based around multilateration — a system able to multilaterate on a particular aircraft based on its transponder signal.

“We get very accurate positions from the surveillance system and we overlay that onto a geospacially correct map,” explains London. “Aerobahn doesn’t just collect data from the Sensis multilateration system; it is capable of interfacing with any surveillance system — anything providing an X/Y coordinate.”

A comprehensive display
“We are what’s referred to as the universal data interface,” says London. “That makes our platform unique in that airlines and airports provide information that interfaces with our product.

“Aerobahn interfaces with any number of customer-supplied data feeds and once they are part of the Aerobahn database, any part of the database can be attributed to a targeted aircraft with that information on the display screen in a very useful way to help the user make informed decisions based on the movement occurring on the airport surface.”
The Aerobahn system is scalable, says London. Meaning, the core server runs the product itself, and Sensis packages and distributes the product custom-tailored for the user’s specific needs.

“If you want to lock the system in on a particular geography of the field; or a particular type of information to be displayed to the user; or to give certain individuals the capability to enter data into the system, you can do that,” says London.

In terms of improving operational efficiency and the customer experience, London says that is the core of Aerobahn’s capability. “The way that airports would use the system would be in the area of optimizing the use of its existing resources,” relates London.

“If an airport wanted a much more accurate view of gate utilization, Aerobahn can provide all of that information not only live, but historically and with replay capability. Replay capability can improve efficiency by looking back at specific incidents to understand what exactly caused congestion on the ramp.”

He also relates that the company has experienced some unexpected results since the Aerobahn system has been live at airports.

“We put the tool in the hands of the user and we think we know how they will use it; and they go off and find five or ten more ways to use it,” says London.

“For example, one of the factors affecting fuel quantity is taxi-out time. To the extent that you have a live real-time picture about how long it’s taking to taxi out, you can make better decisions about how much taxiing fuel factors into the equation of the total fuel requirement.”

It may also be the foundation of a billing system, says London. “If you want precise information about who has landed at your airfield, how long they were on the ground, and when they took off…you can get that information accurately with Aerobahn.”

Aerobahn is NextGen-ready, says London, in that it provides the foundation for capturing the metrics about what happens on an airport surface. “You can actually measure what is occurring on the surface in general, or to a specific region of interest,” says London. “The last step is being able to put into place the policies and procedures that start to extract those efficiencies from the system itself.”

Aerobahn at JFK
What makes JFK unique in this particular case, says London, is that for the first time, the three primary entities at an airport are working together collaboratively on a common surveillance system: the carriers, the airport, and air traffic control.

Japan Airlines (JAL), which offers 13 flights per week non-stop from Tokyo to JFK, began using the Aerobahn system in May of this year. Director of flight operations for JAL at JFK, Joe Gutierrez, says the largest benefit he has seen from the system thus far is situational awareness.

With a staff of five, including himself, Gutierrez relates that among their multi-task-oriented duties involving flight coordination and communication, monitoring aircraft on the ground by listening to the approach tower or ground control radio communication is very difficult.

“Aerobahn is instantaneous situational awareness,” says Gutierrez. “My staff at any point or while conducting any other operation, can simply turn around and look at the display and know precisely where our aircraft is and whatever phase it is in.”

One specific example of how Aerobahn has improved awareness for JAL at JFK is with regard to special weather avoidance procedures and departure fixes. If a particular departure fix is blocked due to weather, Gutierrez’s team can locate on the Aerobahn display where air traffic control is staging aircraft on a taxiway.

“We can use Aerobahn to be able to see what aircraft are stopped and what aircraft are on active taxiways but are not taxiing to the runway,” says Gutierrez. “That gives us an idea of what we might face, especially if another aircraft with the same fix as us is sitting on a taxiway; we would then look at contingency measures.”

There is also statistical data that can be gathered from Aerobahn that will help in some aspects, such as looking back in post-flight analysis, says Gutierrez. “In terms of overall planning and identification of trends, we can use the statistical data that Aerobahn provides; in that respect, Aerobahn will be a valuable tool for JFK as well — Kennedy Airport is a perfect test bed for this system because this airport is a study in inefficiencies.”

I.D. Systems, Inc: Wireless Vehicle Asset Management

AvRamp is a technology that starts with access control, says president and COO of I.D. Systems Ken Ehrman. I.D. Systems’ AvRamp® product is a wireless vehicle management system that controls, tracks, and directs the activity of airport operations, ground support, and cargo handling equipment, and those who operate it.

“What our system does is bring access technology to the vehicle,” says Ehrman. “Once the equipment user logs in, the technology records who logged in; for how long; where they went; what they did; how productive they were; etc. All of that data is collected wirelessly and can be used to improve efficiency, productivity, and peak fleet management.”

The device itself has a card reader embedded in the vehicle unit, relates Ehrman. The unit is linked by a wire to the ignition of the vehicle and a GPS receiver is built into it so the system always knows where that unit is. The system sends data using a 900-megahertz long-range signal back to ‘readers’ which are installed throughout the airport.

According to Ehrman, AvRamp’s potential competition uses cellular technology to track and monitor vehicles. The problem with that technology is that the user has to worry about low-coverage areas and losing the signal, says Ehrman, who relates that AvRamp’s long-range signal is very reliable.

Some advantages to the system include instant messaging capability between AvRamp users; the ability to assign duties to ground vehicles based on proximity to a particular aircraft; and idle control, an automatic sensor which turns off vehicles that have been running longer than required.

American Eagle Airlines has taken the lead role in utilizing AvRamp by installing the system at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW). The launch date is currently set for September 28, says vice president of customer service policy and planning for American Eagle Larry Terrazas.

“We have all of our vehicles equipped, and the hold-up has been with the FAA and making sure the wireless signal isn’t going to interfere with any of their communication equipment,” says Terrazas.

He says the airline has two main focuses to address with the AvRamp system. The first is to try and get better standards for its preventive maintenance program. The airline currently uses calendar-based preventive maintenance for its ground support equipment. With the AvRamp system, users can be automatically notified when a particular piece of equipment is due for scheduled maintenance. “We really think if we go to runtime-based preventative maintenance, we’re going to be able to extend those cycles and not spend as much money as we are today,” says Terrazas.

“The second focus, which is probably going to wind up being bigger than we originally thought, is to monitor how much the vehicles are being used throughout an eight-hour shift, and how much time we are getting out of them.

“Like other airlines, we look at how many gates we use and how much equipment we need per gate, and regardless of what the schedule does, you rarely go in and adjust your ground equipment needs. It will help us right-size our ground support fleet.”

Additional features of AvRamp include impact sensing, which alerts users when a vehicle has struck another object; and geo-fencing, which can alert users when they drive near an active runway.

“The AvRamp system can be packaged and custom-tailored to the customer’s needs,” says Ehrman. “The system also has playback capability; you can go into the history of the system which can be very useful from a management perspective.

“It is a highly automated system that doesn’t require constant monitoring by extra staff.”

According to Terrazas, the airline rarely invests in anything that is more than a 12-month return on the investment. “This meets that requirement; we basically said that we are going to be able to save a good amount of dollars on changing our preventive maintenance cycles and in right-sizing our fleet,” explains Terrazas.

“We are now trying to get a handle on if it makes sense to install the system on non-powered, non-driveable equipment like AC and ground power carts.” Find out more on AvRamp at