Portable Solar Lights Expedite Taxiway Project, Earn Spot in Permanent System at Orlando Int’l

Portable Solar Lights Expedite Taxiway Project, Earn Spot in Permanent  System at Orlando Int’l
Ken Wysocky
Published in: 

Faced with the prospect of an unacceptable delay to reopen a newly repaved taxiway, Orlando International Airport (MCO) got creative. Instead of waiting two or three months for new centerline lights to arrive, the project team pressed ahead last July and used temporary, portable solar-powered edge lights to make the major taxiway functional in just a few hours.

An electrical contractor bolted the solar lights to the taxiway’s asphalt shoulder and set them to dusk/dawn mode, which enables them to turn on and off as dictated by lighting conditions. The taxiway opened for airfield traffic shortly afterward.

A few months later, MCO took the unusual step of integrating the solar lights into its overall airfield lighting control system. As such, whenever a controller in the air traffic control tower turns the airfield lights on or off, the solar lights follow suit—a major convenience, says Tuan Nguyen, MCO’s manager of engineering.


Project: Taxiway Pavement Renovation

Location: Orlando Int’l Airport

Est. Annual Operations: 337,000

Cost: $20 million 

Runway Funding: 75% FAA; 12.5% state; 12.5% airport revenue

Engineering/Design Consultant: AVCON Inc.

Project-Oversight Consultant: WSP

Prime & Paving Contractor: Middlesex Corp.

Key Component: 100 temporary, portable solar-powered taxiway lights

Cost: $120,000 

Light Mfg: Avlite Systems

Electrical Contractor: H.L. Pruitt Corp.

Construction Completed: Dec. 2018

Key Benefits: Temporary lights allowed taxiway to open earlier; saved time & money because no trenching/cabling was required; solar lights integrated with airfield lighting system

The airport purchased 100 portable Avlite AV-70 taxiway lights, plus chargers, mounting kits and two radio-control boxes for about $120,000, not including labor for installation. Nguyen estimates that it would have cost twice as much to install conventional conduit and high-voltage cables to set up temporary electric lighting until taller top-can sections for the new centerline lights arrived.

“It would have been very costly to keep the taxiway open that way,” he explains. “We wanted to open it as soon as possible, because any time you take a taxiway out of service, it increases traffic on the other taxiways, which places a burden on the system.” 

MCO is Florida’s busiest airport, handling 850 to 1,000 operations a day and nearly 46.3 million passengers annually.

The major link between two of MCO’s four runways, Taxiway J runs east and west on the northern end of the airport. It was closed for about a year as part of a multi-phase, $20 million mill-and-overlay project. The FAA paid for 75% of the cost, while the Florida Department of Transportation picked up 12.5% and MCO paid for the balance.

The repaving was completed in mid-July. At that point, measurements were taken for the new centerline light fixtures, which required taller top-can sections to accommodate the higher elevation of the new pavement. A two- to three-month wait to get new top-can sections prompted MCO officials to consider other options to open the taxiway more promptly.

Personnel from AVCON Inc., the company that designed and engineered the repaving project, say the MCO project set a precedent. “I’ve been in the industry since 1987 and this is the first time I’ve ever seen solar lights controlled by an airfield lighting system,” says Carl Johnson, senior aviation lighting specialist for the company. 

The strategy made perfect sense to Jeffrey Trottier, business development manager for Avlite. “When integrated with airfield lighting, the control boxes allow for seamless operation,” says Trottier. “There are no separate controls required for the solar lights.”

Making a Connection

Two antennae installed as part of the system play a key role. In essence, two control boxes located in two airfield electrical vaults were hardwired to the airfield lighting system. As a result, when a controller turns the regular airfield lights on or off, the control devices then send a signal to the antennae. In turn, the antennae relay the signal to the solar lights.

The lights are self-contained, battery-powered units with LEDs that get recharged either by sunlight or by plugging them into charging stations while they’re not in use. At MCO, they’re stored on racks inside electrical vaults.

If the lights aren’t integrated into an airfield lighting system, they can be turned on and off manually, via a switch on each lamp. The lights also can be operated via radio signals emitted by a hand-held remote control that “talks” to radio chips in the lights. Lastly, the lights can be programmed to turn on and off automatically as needed (at dusk and dawn, respectively, for example) thanks to photoelectric-cell technology, 

Trottier notes that the lights provide valuable workaround options in a variety of challenging situations. “They can be used during any kind of emergency,” he remarks. “Say there’s a storm and an airport loses power, you can quickly restore light to get a taxiway back in operation…or during a taxiway paving project, you can take a chunk of runway and turn it into a taxiway…or, if a snow plow knocks out several hundred feet of taxiway lights, you can use these lights to keep the taxiway up and running until it’s safe for electricians to make repairs. They give airports a lot more flexibility.”

Not Your Father’s Solar 

According to Trottier, the technology embedded in AV-70 lights isn’t new, but it provides better performance than before. “The technology for solar panels, LED efficiency and battery technology has improved significantly,” he reports. “The lights now can operate outdoors for extended periods of time and still meet FAA standards for intensity of temporary lights…even with four or five days of heavy cloud cover.”

Avlite’s temporary solar lights are used all over the United States and Canada, though Trottier acknowledges that using them in Alaska and other far-northern regions can be challenging, due to lack of sunlight. “It all depends on how they’re used,” he says. “Sometimes they’re only used on-demand at smaller airports, which isn’t a problem.”

The lights can be set up in minutes, he adds. If used for temporary lighting, they can be mounted on heavy vinyl mats for better stabilization. “There are no special tools or ground-handling equipment required,” Trottier says. “You can just put them in a pickup truck and start setting them up.”

For permanent installations, the lights can be bolted directly to pavement using a frangible mount. Because the lights come in white, red/green and amber/white, some general aviation airports use AV-70s as permanent lighting throughout the airfield.

“You can light an unattended (non-towered) airport,” he adds. “It’s a very cost-effective lighting system—about 25% of the cost of a conventional wired lighting system because there’s no trenching or cabling needed or electricians required. And they’re safer to install because no one has to handle high-voltage cables.”

Teachable Moments

Nguyen first learned about Avlite’s portable solar-powered lights technology during an Illumination Engineering Society Aviation Lighting Conference he attended two years ago. “I realized the potential right away,” he recalls. “So after we selected a design engineer, I shared the product information with AVCON so they could investigate it further.”

MCO officials are very pleased with how the lights performed, and Nguyen envisions using the lights more in the future. “If we ever have a similar project, we don’t need to spend money to buy lights because we can reuse these,” he notes. “It saves everybody money, including the FAA and Florida DOT.”

What could other airport officials learn from MCO’s experience? First of all, Nguyen recommends completing the integration with standard airfield lighting early during a project, so the system is in place when a need for temporary lighting arises. “Earlier definitely is better,” he emphasizes.

In addition, he warns that obtaining FAA airspace approvals for erecting antennae is a time-consuming process. (The two antennae at MCO are 45 feet tall.) As such, he suggests applying for airspace approval well before a project begins.


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