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Airport Infrastructure: Geo-location enabling airports to do business

Airports are not just places where airplanes land and take off. As highly secure, micro economies running their own businesses, airports need g-tech as information backbone at every step

In today’s always-connected digital world, we take for granted being able to access troves of information about almost anything from almost anywhere. Increasingly, the concept that matters most is not what we are looking for or how we are connected to the grid, but that our devices always know exactly where we are. Coffee? We quickly access a list of the highest-rated establishments within a mile of where we are standing. Traffic? Our phones tell us where to turn to find a less congested route. This paradigm- shifting concept is called geolocation, and airports are employing it and other geospatial technologies to improve the way they do business.

Enabling ground workers
Airports in the United States are required to inspect their facilities multiple times a day to ensure that the lights, signs, marking, pavement and other critical assets are in good working condition. Under the US Code of Federal Regulations, Part 139, airports failing to comply risk losing their operating certificate. At the General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, paper forms and radio calls had long formed the backbone of airport operations and maintenance, as they still do at many airports today. By equipping airport inspectors with mobile devices in the field, General Mitchell now enables inspectors to electronically mark the precise location of any abnormal condition they find. No radio call is required, nor a trip back to the office to fill out a paper form. Maintenance teams respond using the same mobile tools and can quickly find the pave- ment crack, broken airfield light, or missing sign that, if left uncorrected, could ultimately affect airport safety.

Oftentimes in Milwaukee, the item noted by the airport inspector is blanketed with six inches of snow, and without spatial data crews could literally spend hours locating and fixing the problem. Tim Pearson, Gen- eral Mitchell International Airport’s GIS Co- ordinator, says, “Using geospatially enabled mobile devices in the field for inspection and work orders has made everyone more efficient — from inspectors to maintenance to management. Everyone is on the same page all the time. We know exactly where work needs to be performed, and we generate no paper.”

Property management
Airports are not just places where airplanes land and take off. They are micro economies that support their existence by leasing property and charging fees for parking. Property man- agement systems have been used for years at airports to track tenants and leases. To- day, airports are using geo- spatial technology to turn these stuffy data warehouses into real time sources of critical operating information.

Airport situation management with a geospatial component

Have a security problem somewhere in the terminal? A few mouse clicks on a geospatial system, and airports like Gen- eral Mitchell can generate a list of nearby tenants and their contact information to spread the word quickly.

Airports are also embracing the analysis capability of geospatial technology to reduce time traditionally spent on tedious tasks. For example, Denver International Airport has invested in Web-based tools used by the airport’s planning department to evaluate potential construction and obstructions. Using the Internet browser, a highly-accurate base map and an airport terrain model, the staff at Denver Interna- tional Airport can quickly determine the impact of planned construction. Informa- tion available includes which navigation surfaces — imaginary surfaces uses to pro- tect airspace around aircraft flight paths — might be infringed upon by new construc- tion and by how much; and whether the control tower’s line of sight to the airfield will be impacted in any way. Geospatial tools such as these reduce the time airport staff spend answering routine questions both internally and for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Real time spatial information
Increasingly, real time spatial informa- tion is also available to airports. The FAA recently released official guidance defining how airport ground vehicles — hundreds of operations vehicles, escorts, catering trucks and snow plows that crisscross most major airports — can participate in the same real time spatial network that aircraft do. This technology, called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), relies on an aircraft or vehicle knowing its own position through on-board GPS equip- ment, and broadcasting that information out to other listening devices on a regular interval. With the path cleared for ground vehicles to participate in the network, airports are working to figure out how to best leverage this new common operating picture.

In the near future, approaching aircraft and the control tower will both know if a ground vehicle, such as a snow plow in the middle of a winter storm, is lingering on the runway. Likewise, an airport opera- tions vehicle responding to an arriving air- craft with a passenger in medical distress will see exactly where that aircraft is at any given time. Some of the most promising uses of real time positioning at airports, such as routing the nearest maintenance vehicle to the scene of a critical pavement flaw, depend equally on the vehicle’s onboard GPS position and a high quality airport geospatial basemap.

Security and situation management
An emerging, security-related application of geospatial technology at major airports is called situation management. When an incident occurs at an airport, it’s often difficult to tell early on how severe the in- cident will become. For example, a piece of luggage left by itself in the terminal is most likely an innocuous lost bag, but airports have to be prepared for any alternative. Un- der the concept of situation management, airports design workflows in advance to manage most conceivable situations and handle any contingency. Effective situa- tion management software deploys these workflows and depends heavily on the geospatial location of an airport’s assets. The locations of security cameras, exits, key utilities, shutoff valves, access-controlled doors and many other assets are linked to situation management software.

At major airports today employing situation management, if a bag is left unattended and its location is radioed to the control center, a supervisor can im- mediately access the nearby critical assets necessary to deal with the situation.