Airports Throughout Maine Roll Out New System to Record Aircraft Data

Airports Throughout Maine Roll Out New System to Record Aircraft Data
Author: 
Kristin V. Shaw
Published in: 
July-August
2021

When an aircraft is involved in a crash, finding the “black box” flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder is imperative to subsequent investigations. If an accident takes place at a general aviation airport without a control tower, or when personnel are not on duty, it is much harder to analyze the communications and conditions that preceded the accident. 

A product developed by two airport professionals in Maine is helping airports throughout the state and elsewhere bridge that critical information gap by recording radio transmissions between aircraft and airports. When equipped with Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) tracking, the new technology also helps airports amass data about airfield utilization and collect landing or parking fees. 

At $3,400 per unit, or $6,875 with ADS-B, Maine’s Department of Transportation found the cost/benefit ratio so appealing, it paid to have the equipment installed at 32 airports throughout the state.

facts&figures

Project: Recording Aircraft Radio Communications

Software Creator: Invisible Intelligence LLC

Product: G.A.R.D. (General Audio Recording Device)

Cost: $3,400/unit; $6,875 with ADS-B (no annual fees or subscription costs; airports own the systems & all associated data)

Units Sold: 150-200 throughout the U.S.

State-Sponsored Deployments: 32 FAA-funded airports in Maine; Alaska has installed systems at 2 airports, is seeking funding to add them at 20 to 30 more

Timeline: Product debuted in 2013; rollout in Maine began in 2013.

Key Benefits: Provides data about aircraft activity at airports without towers; helps operators collect revenue from after-hours customers; radio data serves as training tool for pilots & airport employees; airfield data assists statewide planning, demonstrates value of individual airports

Tragedy Inspires Innovation

G.A.R.D.® (short for General Audio Recording Device) was developed after a fatal November 2012 accident, when a Cessna 172 carrying two passengers and its pilot crashed shortly after takeoff from Knox County Regional Airport (RKD) near Owls Head, ME. 

According to a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report, the Cessna collided with an airport-authorized pickup truck during takeoff and then went down into nearby woods. The driver of the truck said that he had announced his intention to cross the runway using the common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF) for aircraft, didn’t receive a response and proceeded after a visual sweep didn’t reveal anything on the runway.

As news of the crash reverberated throughout the area, John Guimond, manager of Augusta State Airport (AUG), just one hour away, immediately wondered how he could help. Focusing his attention on preventing similar accidents, Guimond honed in on the idea of recording CTAF and universal communications (Unicom) transmissions to provide better training for local pilots and airport workers who drive ground vehicles.

All Guimond had to do was find someone to program the software he had in mind. He turned to Ron Cote, a computer programmer and electrical repair specialist for Maine airports; and the two began to collaborate. As an airport manager, Guimond knew the system had to be effective and inexpensive, or it wouldn’t be adopted. After all, this was an idea to help all airports, including his own. 

The partnership was dubbed Invisible Intelligence, and once Cote had functional software to demo, he approached Tim LeSiege, an aviation engineer at Maine’s Department of Transportation. Part of LeSiege’s job is to inspect all general aviation airports in the state, driving the runways end to end and parking at each threshold while he inspects the approaches. That means he often crosses runways in a truck, just like the one involved in the crash at RKD. As such, he immediately recognized the value in Cote and Guimond’s idea.

“My gut reaction was that it was revolutionary,” recalls LeSiege. “It’s basically a black box for airports.”

More specifically, the “black box” developed by Invisible Intelligence acts as a flight data recorder for airports, with software programmed to a laptop that can be used anywhere and moved as necessary. Files of summary data is encrypted and automatically sent via PuTTY for secure file transfer.

At the same time Cote and Guimond were developing G.A.R.D., LeSiege was considering the same issue from a different angle: using noise-attenuated counters to detect aircraft for gathering operational data. However, runways longer than 3,000 feet would require a counter at each end, and multi-runway airports would need many counters. At $4,000 each, counters would be far less cost-effective than G.A.R.D.

In addition, acoustical counters are physically unstable. Even lawnmowers can cause them to topple and relay confusing information. Game cameras intended to track wildlife could capture visual information, but they require airport employees to physically pull the equipment to retrieve information.

As Cote, Guimond and LeSiege compared various options, the audio recording concept from Invisible Intelligence continued to emerge as the preferred technology. Needing only one unit per frequency, even at airports with multiple runways, proved to be a decisive advantage.    

Simplicity Wins

By design, G.A.R.D. is very basic.

Users receive four components: a laptop with battery backup, custom software, an interface box that converts input from the airport radio or scanner, and an ADS-B receiver. Using those components, the system records exactly what is being said and what occurs on the airfield, Cote explains.

As such, the system helps airports determine if aircraft are using their runways after hours and allows them to collect associated revenue. And, true to Guimond’s original vision, it’s also a training tool. Airports can use collected data to correct unsafe behavior by pilots and airport employees, and to educate first responders who are unfamiliar with aircraft radio protocols.

Smaller general aviation and un-towered airports can use G.A.R.D. to calculate aircraft movements, which is information required by the FAA that is traditionally difficult to estimate accurately.

As more airports began to reach out to Invisible Intelligence about its new product, the company would invoice airport customers, and their respective Departments of Transportation would offer reimbursement. When G.A.R.D. was launched in 2013, Maine DOT paid 50%, and then 100% when ADS-B was added in 2020. Word spread quickly through the National Association of State Aviation Officials (NASAO), and soon airports in Utah, Vermont, Alaska, Arkansas and Louisiana had discovered the new solution from Maine. 

One airport in Louisiana discovered that 15% or more of its operations were taking place after hours, and G.A.R.D. helped produce more accurate operations counts. Conversely, an airport in Maine that had been reporting operations in the 80,000 range discovered its traffic was closer to 30,000 after implementing the software.

LeSiege reports that 17 of Maine’s 32 FAA-funded airports ordered the recording device right off the bat. He was pleased to see immediate interest in the new product, because he considers it an important safety training tool. For instance, having recorded data is key when a pilot announces an intention to use one runway but lands on another. The recording affords the airport a great opportunity to bring in the pilot to discuss the importance of calling the correct runway, he explains.

“I wanted my family to have peace of mind,” adds LeSiege. “This gives information to them and my department to show I am doing the job I’m supposed to be doing and using the radio to let them know where I am. It offers a level of comfort that pilots should have as well, to know what’s there on the runway.”

Adding ADS-B to the Mix

Maine’s Department of Transportation uses the ADS-B component of the system to track individual runway usage. The technology also identifies what corporations are flying into various airfields, which, in turn, helps define proper FAA design standards for planning purposes. 

“What we’re finding from the data is that it’s not just the sheer number, but also the use of the airport: business, pleasure, medical or cargo, for instance,” says LeSiege. “Each GA airport has a niche.

“We need to know which jets are showing up and for what purpose,” he explains. “Having data for operations counts is important. Along with the ADS-B data, we find out not just who but what is landing at the airports.”

Data collected by G.A.R.D. also helps demonstrate the value of airports across the state.

“Being able to tell folks in remote areas where aircraft are coming from, we can show how important those airports are to the local economy,” says LeSiege.

Who and what are coming to Maine via aircraft was previously a story that had not been told, he adds. For instance, beyond local and itinerate corporate traffic, private aircraft dropping off and picking up kids from summer camps is big business for airports throughout the state. Guimond’s airport, AUG, is so busy during “camp weekends,” that it has to shut down one of its asphalt runways to have enough room to park all the extra aircraft. Prior to using G.A.R.D., the state-owned, city-managed airport could not determine where the aircraft had originated.

Nathan Moulton, director of MaineDOT’s Office of Freight and Passenger Services, explains that ADS-B data improves safety, enhances planning efforts and helps prioritize various airport improvement projects. 

“Some of the smaller towns worried that this system was a little Big Brotherish,” Moulton notes. “But we convinced them of the importance of knowing what’s happening for the sake of safety. The data is consistent, and it looks the same across the board, which creates confidence and redundancy. When managing an entire system, we like to see as much data as we can.”

Not Just for East Coasters

G.A.R.D. is also proving popular in Alaska, where 82% of the communities are off the contiguous road system, and airports play a vital role in transporting people and goods.

Troy LaRue, Alaska DOT Divisions Operations manager for statewide aviation, explains that Alaska does not have an aircraft registration process, and recording accurate traffic data used to be next to impossible.

“In the past, we were calling airports and using FAA T100 data and word of mouth to measure commercial traffic,” says the 25-year Alaska DOT veteran. “Even then, you’re not getting GA or Part 191 guys. Now, we’re getting more accurate data that we can analyze and use to make better decisions.”

LaRue, who works with 239 state-operated airports in Alaska, notes that the recording technology is particularly helpful at airfields that levy landing fees. Having detailed data not only increases their revenue, but also assists in planning. As Alaska DOT prepares for its next master planning session, it is parsing data every way possible to gain the most insight. 

In Alaska, day-to-day airfield maintenance is often handled by local contractors. With little to no staff at these airports, Alaska’s DOT would not have a good idea of who its airport users are without the software.

“We have seen an increase in aviation in Alaska overall,” says LaRue. “If our population grows, the airports grow too. We need to know if we’re building the right taxiways and airport infrastructure. We would not know who most of our airport users are without the G.A.R.D. system.  We have a need for about 30 to 50 more that we hope to purchase over the next two years.”

Continuous Improvements

As more states and airports deploy its system, Invisible Intelligence learns a little more with each rollout and adapts its product accordingly.

“We discovered that the computer needed to be smart enough to reconnect to Wi-Fi once an hour in case someone disconnected it,” Cote says. 

So far, however, the system is working for the Department of Transportation in Maine and other states with minimal challenges.

“We have not had any service calls,” Guimond reports.

“Well, we had one,” Cote counters, with a grin. “It was due to operator error."

Subcategory: 
IT/Communications

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