In the air, on the ground

Philip Mason surveys some of the digital communications technologies that are transforming critical operations at airports

There is perhaps no sector more dependent on the use of mission-critical comms than aviation, involving as it does life-or-death information being continually transmitted between those in the air and on the ground.

As we saw with incidents such as the in-air disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in 2014, for instance, it only takes one glitch in communication – in that case the mysterious failing of the plane’s transponder – to contribute to a tragedy that grabs the attention of the whole world.

History is likewise also full of incidents taking place at airports themselves, where mis- or faulty communication has led to, often massively high-profile, disasters. A relatively recent example of this took place at Linate Airport in Milan in 2001, when issues around communication contributed to a runway collision between two planes and the subsequent death of 118 people.

As well as the life-critical aspect, however, commercial aviation is incredibly dependent on digital communications to help it run in the most effective and efficient way possible. There is, after all, arguably no environment in which time is more of the essence than an airport, with larger sites such as Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta dealing with more than 2,000 flights in a single day.

At the same time, the task of getting a plane into the air is both hugely complicated and labour-intensive, involving any number of different processes taking place around the facility. Clearly, while you don’t want the aircraft to crash, you also need to make sure that it gets away on time, carrying the requisite fuel, passengers, gin, vacuum-sealed scones, sick bags and so on.

This is an area in which digital communications has made an enormous impact, with a variety of solutions now available to help staff on the ground keep on top of everything, both front of house and behind the scenes. These range from traditional, two-way radio/TETRA-based products to increasingly data-orientated platforms delivering information across the site in real time.

The move from analogue to TETRA
Recent months have seen several high-profile roll-outs of TETRA-based technology at airports around the world, including the huge BH Airport in Brazil, as well as Liberty International in Newark, New Jersey. With equipment provided by Motorola Solutions in the case of the former and PowerTrunk for the USA site, both projects prove the enduring appeal of narrowband in a mission-critical context.

Speaking of BH Airport’s decision to furnish its ground crews with Motorola Solutions’ Dimetra product, the vendor’s sales manager for direct sales in Brazil, Alcedir Goulart, says: “The airport wanted to replace its previous analogue radio system with something which, essentially, provides them with access to talk groups for those working in critical operations. The idea behind this was to bring together functions such as security, baggage handling and so on.”

The roll-out so far has involved the provision of around 200 terminals, linked into the system’s centralised ‘zone controller’, which tracks the use of radio resources across the facility. The airport dispatch centre is currently managing roughly 23,000 push-to-talk calls a day.

According to Goulart, the system has been a particularly good fit because of the ease with which it allows talk groups to be convened and disbanded, something which occurs on a flight-by-flight basis across numerous teams. As well as the system’s talk functions, the facility is also using features such as the ability to track the position of users via the radios.

Goulart indicates that in the future, BH Airport may desire to integrate the company’s PTT over broadband technology into its operations. If so, he says, this will allow the airport to link up all its digital communication devices, as well as enabling functionality such as push-to-talk using smart devices. He is unable to identify when this might occur.

Back in the USA
Another airport that has recently made the jump to TETRA is Liberty International (EWR) in Newark, with the system in that case being provided by PowerTrunk. Installed in a project led by Rockwell Collins, the New Jersey site is the fourth in a series of airport roll-outs orchestrated by the two companies across the United States, taking place over the past five years.

Offering some background on PowerTrunk’s relationship with Rockwell Collins, the former’s VP, sales project management and market development, Keith Ammons, says: “We signed the agreement to put the system in at LAX in late 2013, shortly after we introduced TETRA to North America, via the New Jersey transit system. That was followed by an agreement to roll out at JFK, and then San Francisco. The most recent project is Newark.”

As with the Motorola deployment in Brazil, EWR’s TETRA network is employed for mission-critical airline and aviation ground-based services. This includes the likes of airline ramp-area personnel, passenger services, ground handlers, terminal security teams and so on. PowerTrunk’s technology is likewise replacing the airport’s legacy solution, which in the case of Newark consisted of an iDEN system that was reaching the end of its lifespan.

On how the radios are incorporated into airport operations in New Jersey, Ammons says: “The process of turning a plane around [getting it ready for take-off] revolves around the supervisor who’s positioned at the gate, co-ordinating numerous different services and people connected to a particular aircraft. They interact with one set of people for one flight, and a completely different set for the next.

“The talk groups on the Sepura devices we supplied are formed at the dispatch position. Then, once the plane takes off, the group is torn down and the next one initiated.”

He continues: “One of the big selling points for us is the noise-cancellation characteristics of the handhelds. Clearly, certain areas of the airport are extremely noisy, with maintenance crews, refuelling crews and so on all working next to the aircraft with the engines running. All our users have been incredibly surprised with the audio clarity and the noise reduction we’ve been able to provide.”

Revealing the context behind the deployment, director of radio technology solutions at Rockwell Collins, John Monto, says: “We needed a new radio system, ultimately because the previous one was being ‘sunsetted’ by its manufacturer, who had pulled support for the product. It was the same situation across all four airports.

“While obviously still a major piece of work, the fact that we were simply swapping systems made certain things easier. For instance, they already had the frequency and the licences in place.”

He continues: “In terms of coverage, again we’d already performed the requisite surveys for the previous system. Regarding interference to the signal, there was nothing that you wouldn’t see with any similar radio system, although there are always particular RF challenges with airports, such as terminal construction.”

Mitigate any disruption
The recent roll-outs in North and South America show just how highly regarded TETRA is when it comes to the deployment of mission-critical digital comms. At the same time, however, numerous airport management solutions are now also being developed which take full advantage of the capabilities of LTE, particularly in relation to the use of data.

A high-profile example of this is the recent implementation of a community app and ‘VisionAir’ solution at Gatwick Airport, providing crucial up-to-the minute information to both staff and passengers.

According to figures published by Airports Council International, as of 2016 Gatwick was the second-busiest airport in the UK after Heathrow, processing more than 43 million passengers a year. With that in mind, arguably the most pressing issues around workflow and logistics are those presented by large volumes of people moving around the airport at the same time.

Discussing how the apps are designed to mitigate these concerns, principal consultant at developer AirportLabs, Ligiu Uiorean, says: “Essentially, we saw an opportunity to develop a real-time communication channel for use by airport staff, with the focus on helping them make more informed decisions.

“In the aviation sector, an improvement in efficiency of just a few per cent can make a massive difference, particularly if you’re dealing with millions of passengers a year.

“The airports we’ve worked with so far – Gatwick was our first client – have found it incredibly useful, particularly when it comes to things like queue reduction. For instance, by using the app, Dubai has now reduced its queue time from eight minutes to four and a half. That may not seem like much, but in an environment where everything needs to run exactly to schedule, it’s invaluable.”

He continues: “The app can also be used to mitigate any disruption if things go wrong, or there’s a delay. For instance, if a specific gate is no longer available, the fact that both staff and passengers know instantly makes it much easier to handle the movement of hundreds of people at short notice.

“At Gatwick in particular there’s a large number of short-haul flights, meaning that a delay could have a knock-on effect across the rest of the day. In the normal course of things, the same aircraft will visit the airport three or four times in the same 24-hour period.”

Once downloaded, the app furnishes users with a plethora of relevant information, delivered in real time. The majority of this data is brought in from sources such as the Airport Operational Database (AODB), as well as third-party providers including train operators and the police. Going back to the subject of queues, meanwhile, pertinent information arrives via sensors dotted around the facility in optimal locations.

Speaking of how this intelligence is analysed and sorted, Uiorean says: “Once the data is integrated – we work entirely via the cloud – we have a very powerful engine which ascertains relevance, using a red, amber and green alerting system. We’re currently investing quite a bit in machine learning to improve on that even further, looking specifically at areas such as flow management and airfield optimisation.

“One thing we’ve had to be very careful about in all this is not to provide too many alerts, to stop people from becoming flooded with more information than they need. We’re currently enabling users to choose the kind of thing they want to be informed of, which again is proving to be effective.”

The community app was developed together with Gatwick itself as a way to replace its previous SMS-based alerting system which, among other things, was proving to be prohibitively expensive. The solution has since been adopted by 12 other airports across the world, including Edinburgh, Milan and the aforementioned Dubai.

According to Uiorean, the solution has evolved considerably since it was launched, providing a means for not just the dissemination of data but also – in the app’s next iteration – for its collection. This will allow staff themselves to provide real-time updates by reporting faults, issues around readiness checks and so on.

Speaking of the apparently endless, and often surprising, potential of the technology, he says: “Some interesting use-cases have come up, particularly with VisionAir. As you might imagine, one of the features of the app is letting people know where the nearest emergency exit is, something which thankfully doesn’t get used very often.

“In Dubai, however, it gets used five times a day because it can also point to the nearest prayer-room. I’d like to claim that I came up with that, but I didn’t.”

Linking it all together
As well as its current innovative use of data to keep staff and customers informed, Gatwick has also evolved its control room operations through the use of APD’s software-only Cortex ICCS (integrated communication control system) solution.

Designed to be adaptable across numerous verticals, Cortex enables users to consolidate the different aspects of their internal business comms effort onto a single digital system. According to the company’s managing director Mike Isherwood, it has proved particularly useful in an airport environment because of the disparate nature of the tasks that need to be carried out by ground staff, as well as the potential number of different systems deployed across a single site.

Regarding its use at Gatwick in particular, he says: “Communications taking place in the airport go straight through Cortex. That could be anything from two-way radio comms between staff on-site, a passenger calling for assistance at a help point, to communication with on-site emergency services.

“It also links elements such as access control, lifts and the CCTV system, something which is crucial when it comes to monitoring any security or terrorist-related situations. Gatwick wanted something incredibly flexible, which could be used as part of a 360-degree solution. That’s what we gave them.”

According to Isherwood, Cortex interacts with new and pre-existing legacy hardware (for instance, digital or analogue radio, telephone switches and so on) via the use of what he calls a ‘conversion module’. It subsequently ‘virtualises’ communications infrastructure, making it accessible all in one place through the use of a touchscreen, anywhere in the world.

Speaking of the interface itself, he says: “Every layout is bespoke to the organisation. Customers can drag and drop widgets, to create the perfect interface for individual users or different roles. It is also adaptive so it fits laptops, desktops and tablets.”

He continues: “With any system, the first thing we do before we even think about installation is to sit down with the client and work out exactly what they want to achieve. This means looking at the technology they already have, which with Gatwick was essentially based around a 20-year-old Ericsson dealer board.

“For me, the really important bit comes in understanding how the organisation functions operationally, and we then look at how we can improve or complement the existing processes.

“After carrying out the initial low-level design process, we model their pre-existing workflow as part of a broader consultancy effort. The product is designed to be modular, so the customer only pays for what they use. If you don’t have CCTV, we don’t add it.”

Commercial aviation is currently facing numerous challenges, ranging from questions around commercial viability to the seemingly never-ending threat from global terrorism. Thankfully, digital comms technology is proving invaluable in helping to make sure everything functions as it should when it comes to getting passengers in the air.