Tech Bytes

April 3, 2006
The technology helps to ensure that the person performing the inspection cannot miss anything.

El Paso International Airport is leading the way for U.S. airports when it comes to airfield inspection technology. In early March, the airport began use of an electronic GPS (global positioning system)-based airfield operations area (AOA) self-inspection program. The technology will be used to conduct airfield inspections — including runways, taxiways, airfield lighting systems, navigational aids, airfield signage, construction, fencing, and firefighting capability.

Aerial photos of the airport, detailed maps of the airfield, and signage/lighting plans were used by Ontario-based Eagle Integrated Solutions to program the airfield inspection technology.

According to airport director Pat Abeln, the technology helps to ensure that the person performing the inspection cannot miss anything on the airfield. “Like most airports, we have a pretty complex airfield,” says Abeln. “If you take all three of our runways and all our taxiways together, you probably have 20 miles of driving to inspect.” The airfield inspection system identifies what has been covered and not covered, and will not allow an inspector to finish until the entire airfield is inspected.

As the inspector drives around the airfield, the system — through GPS location and satellite photos — shows the inspector exactly where he or she is. If something needs repairing, it can be pinpointed, documented, and a work order generated for the repair. When maintenance comes to make the repair, it knows the exact location because of the explicit GPS data. “When you come across a defect in the runway, we’re able to mark that with the GPS coordinates and print out a photo for our maintenance people.”

Airport operations superintendent Terry Sharpe says the computer-based system allows for more accurate recordkeeping. There are no papers to be lost and everyone from the inspector to the maintenance crew knows exactly what needs replacing or fixing and where it is on the airfield.

Airfield safety and runway incursions are top of mind for any airport and Abeln says this technology will allow his airport to further promote safe airfield operations. Training is obviously key, he says, but no matter how good training is, with large construction projects airside, the risk is higher that someone could get into a dangerous situation. El Paso is utilizing an additional feature of the technology which, during construction or repaving, will allow the airport to equip contractor’s vehicles with a GPS locator. The airport safety officer can then watch visually as well as on the computer GPS reading exactly where those vehicles are and warn them if they are entering a dangerous area.

What’s important to understand, explains Abeln, is that the new technology will not replace inspections or the monitoring of vehicles on the airfield. “It’s all redundant to what we normally do,” explains Abeln. “We’re not going to just let the computer do the work for us, but it’s a powerful tool that will help us do our job better.” The airport invested some $55,000 in this technology to date, which does not include the system for contractor’s vehicles. “We have a pretty sophisticated airfield,” says Abeln. “The cost to program the entire airfield, I thought, was pretty reasonable. I think it will pay for itself in a year or two.” There will also be ongoing costs associated with the GPS service, which the airport hasn’t nailed down completely.

Abeln suggests that in two to three years, this technology will be an industry standard. But again, he stresses an important point: The technology is a supplementary tool and doesn’t replace, but rather enhances, the way airfield inspections are performed.