Pittsburgh Int'l Combines Two Software Packages to Integrate Airfield Reporting

Greg Gerber
Published in: 

When the weather is deteriorating and pilots need accurate, up-to-date runway condition reports, the time it takes to create and forward manual reports can be costly. Incorrect or stale information can lead to incorrect decisions, which, in turn, can lead to disastrous results.

That's a challenge that worried officials at Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) for years.  A cumbersome process often led to critical information being unintentionally "siloed" because of the way data was collected and shared.

For example, if ice was forming on the runway, maintenance and operations crews would deploy equipment to measure the amount of friction on the pavement. Results were expressed in the form of an MU rating, on a scale of zero to one. A higher number, like 0.7, denoted a bare, dry surface on which pilots should have little problem controlling aircraft. A lower number, like 0.3, meant pilots - and ground crews - needed to pay close attention to surface conditions because aircraft would likely start to lose braking ability.


Project: Integration/Automation of Airfield Reporting

Location: Pittsburgh Int'l Airport (PIT)

Software: WinterOps Pro, by Team Eagle; IDS5, by Systems Atlanta Friction

Testers: Dynatest

Deicing Equipment: Smart Manufacturing

Cost: $300,000 to integrate Eagle WinterPro; $900,000 to install wireless

Timeline: 1 yr. to integrate software; 3 yrs. to install airport-wide wireless service

Benefits: Electronic transmission speeds delivery of condition reports to pilots & airport personnel; maintenance efforts/materials are pinpointed to specific runway sections

After an MU rating was obtained, a technician had to drive to the Operations Department office and prepare a report. That report would then be phoned into and sent to various airport offices. The time-consuming process could easily render the data being conveyed useless in near-freezing or changing conditions.

Given the system's shortcomings, PIT Field Maintenance Supervisor Jim Moorhead searched for a better way - specifically, for technology to simultaneously convey real-time airfield condition reports to various airport departments. Having worked in the airport's Operations Center until three years ago, Moorhead was acutely aware of the need for timely, accurate information.

The airport subsequently began using WinterOps Pro software, from Team Eagle, to show maintenance staff precisely where deicing chemicals are needed. The friction testing equipment records the date, time and GPS location of data collection. It also adds surface and ambient air temperature readings to the GPS tags it creates. With such data, crews now apply chemicals to specific stretches of a runway rather than its entire length, explains Paul Cudmore, general manager and COO for Team Eagle.

"This system is much more precise in helping airports to deploy equipment and chemicals at a more quantifiable rate," adds Cudmore. "Plus, everyone has the same understanding of the current surface conditions and can better decide what needs to be done to improve ground conditions."

More Automation

The system worked so well that Moorhead approached Team Eagle about integrating its software elsewhere at PIT - in the same trucks and equipment that use a program by Systems Atlanta to communicate runway conditions, closed runways, wind speed and other critical data. Moorhead envisioned the programs working in conjunction to integrate reporting and active maintenance.

When he invited officials from both companies to meet with PIT's Information Technology Department about a possible collaboration, he was especially interested in the prospect of using detailed GPS data to pinpoint specific areas of the runway that needed immediate attention.

"We were able to overlay Team Eagle's GPS data onto Systems Atlanta's data pages to not only see current field conditions, but to see the location of problem areas so we can ensure complete safety on the airfield," relates Moorhead.

With that system in place, the team then launched a second phase of integration to help prevent runway incursions. In addition to tracking the location of ground vehicles, it issues visual and audible alerts in the cab whenever an outfitted vehicle comes within 500 feet of an intersecting runway.

"In a blinding snowstorm, that data is essential," explains Moorhead. "It is a vital aspect of our safety management program."

By linking geographic information with global positioning technology, airports can now use spatial recognition software to assess runway surfaces and identify conditions such as drifting snow or ice formation in touchdown areas, says Cudmore.

"The graphical depiction of what the surface looks like at the end of the runway can give ground crews and pilots a visual clue of what is going on so they can better prepare for landing in adverse conditions," he notes.

When surface data is relayed to other equipment, like deicing machines, vehicle operators receive information that may not be readily visible, especially at night, adds Cudmore.

As PIT continues to build its fleet, each vehicle is equipped with a device to track its location and deliver that information and other data to a central computer that redistributes select data to specific workstations throughout the airport.

"The new system takes the human factor out by automatically transmitting new data every 1,000 feet during runway tests," explains Moorhead. "So, when the friction tester is rolling down the runway, the data it collects is instantly imported into the deicing truck. Then, the computer takes over and activates the chemical equipment to deploy just enough solution to resolve the problem."

If, for instance, a crosswind is causing 500 feet of runway to freeze faster than the rest, PIT's new system can pinpoint that location, convey it to the deicer, which applies solution in the right spot - saving time and money, he explains.

The system also alerts maintenance crews to other potential problems, explains Thomas Voelzke, superintendent of field maintenance at PIT. For example, if workers are applying more chemical in one area and the friction numbers don't rise, the crew knows to investigate other aspects, such as grooving or paving.

Data is now automatically synched between the Maintenance Department office, Operations Center, FAA control tower and the airport rescue and firefighting stations. If the control tower orders a direction change for the departing runway, other departments are instantly aware of the situation and can determine how runway conditions are affected by the change.

"On final approach, pilots often want updated MU numbers and an idea of what the touchdown area is like," notes Moorhead. "Now, they can get it directly from the airport's computer system." In the past, "current" reports could include outdated information, he adds.

Collected data is retained on the Maintenance Department's main computer for 365 days. "This provides a useful history that helps airport managers identify long-term trends," says Cudmore. "Perhaps the surface area is getting worse over time. The system lets airport staff better plan for routine maintenance and major reconditioning."

Historic data can also be helpful during investigations, adds Moorhead. "If we need to reference something later because of an incident, we can show exactly what was deployed, when it was deployed and how much chemical was used," he explains.

Collecting Real-time Data

PIT uses Dynatest friction testing equipment to detect icing or excessive rubber buildup on runways. According to Frank Holt, senior vice president of Dynatest, the key is collecting such data in real time.

As the truck-mounted device is driven down the runway, technicians in the cab watch a screen as the system records data. At the end of the test, the system shuts off and produces a data file. With a few clicks, the file is transmitted wirelessly to the Operations and Maintenance offices. From there, it is retransmitted wirelessly to deicing machines, where it integrates with the equipment's control software.

Some modifications were needed to facilitate the enhanced communication, notes Holt. "We had to modify a few things on our equipment and produce a special file format that is compatible with another vendor's software," he explains. "And we had to add elaborate GPS capability to the runway truck that enables the system to collect data for every foot of runway space."

After initial testing at Dynatest's facility, Holt's team installed a beta copy of the data collection software on the airport's equipment. After a few test runs, both Holt and Voelzke saw the promise associated with integrating the system. Voelzke now foresees adapting the system for other equipment, such as weed sprayers.

Real-time Dissemination

For Systems Atlanta, the integration at PIT represented new territory.

"In the past, Systems Atlanta's IDS5 software was typically a standalone network that communicated data internally to air traffic controllers," explains company Vice President Darrin Luedke. "If any other airport department needed the data, it would be conveyed through general information messages, phone calls, emails and even passing notes in the hallway."

The project first required Systems Atlanta to integrate airport operations, emergency operations, the Maintenance Department and aircraft rescue and firefighting facilities into one airport-wide data network. The company then developed a delivery vehicle that would enable critical airfield information to be immediately disseminated to nine major airline operations areas without relying on a single company's proprietary hardware or software.

Once the IDS5 network was interconnected and capable of transmitting and receiving data streams from all key areas, Systems Atlanta then worked with Team Eagle to determine what data needed to be transmitted to which departments, under which conditions and onto which screens.

After the airport operations team validates conditions reports, the program sends pertinent items from that data string to approved users, populating essential fields so personnel can immediately see it on their computers. Systems Atlanta also ensured that configurations were ready for audio and visual alerts when conditions merit their use. 

"Our expertise lies in organizing, displaying and disseminating information collected by our industry partners," says Luedke. "We were fortunate that companies working with the Pittsburgh airport believe in open sharing of information. They were willing to come to the table and explain what information they could provide. We, in turn, determined how it could be delivered to those who needed it. It is precisely that level of integration and collaboration that works well in serving the needs of airports."

To make the system work at another airport, the facility would simply need to run Team Eagle's WinterOps Pro on the back end, says Holt. "Then, we would mount a GPS unit on airport trucks and load new software. As soon as it is turned on, the system is ready to rock and roll," he relates. The system may inspire pushback from outside contractors, he warns jokingly, because it allows airports to maintain specific sections vs. entire runways. "Whether it is deicing, sanding or plowing, airports only need to clean areas where the MU value is too low," Holt explains. "If the MU rating is above .50, why put chemical down on that area? It's a waste of money."

Highway departments are employing similar technology, he reports. As a result, Smart Manufacturing is modifying its deicing machines to read the MU data file and automatically turn sprayers on and off. 

Enhancements to PIT's application vehicles include updated controllers and plumbing to help equipment release the desired quantity of material, while compensating for vehicle ground speed.

"When it works right, airports should be able to save the cost of their investment as early as the first year," contends Holt. Multi-department benefits can help justify technology purchases, adds Cudmore.

Luedke predicts that PIT will soon incorporate all current data with real-time movement of vehicles and aircraft - and instantly push that data to others at the airport. So when runway surface conditions change the airport's arrival or departure rate, the system will instantly convey that information to personnel making decisions about when aircraft taxi, depart or arrive.

"The data needs of the air Operations Office are much different from that of the Maintenance Office," relates Luedke. "We will be able to manipulate a heavy stream of data to redirect specific information out to people who really need it, when they need it."

The old school system of writing and erasing condition reports on a Plexiglas board included high potential for human error. "This solution is a timesaving and lifesaving technology that gives key people specific information they need, right now, to make critical decisions that can impact the safety of people on the ground and in the air," he contrasts.

"The main reason we are so happy with this project is because all the partners were willing to work toward a common goal and to adapt their own software and equipment to better meet an important airport need," adds Cudmore. "They were willing to share their respective information in a format that others can use - and that shows the power of integration compared to using four standalone system apps. We took what was once a paper-based form and transformed it into an electronic version with more intelligence. Now, the data can be leveraged as an operational tool, not just a report."


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