Roanoke Regional Installs Beacons to Track Ground Transportation Providers

Kristin Vanderhey Shaw
Published in: 

When Tim Bradshaw took the helm as executive director at Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional (ROA) in 2014, the Virginia airport didn't have a ground transport policy. These days, ROA not only has a formal policy in place, it also has a new system that uses low-cost beacons to track activity and revenue. 

"Taxi and courtesy vehicles just showed up, unregulated," recalls Bradshaw. "We wanted to be able to track the vehicles in and around the airport, and we planned to put our taxi service out to bid, but we didn't have anything to compare it to."

After Bradshaw's arrival, the airport quickly developed and adopted a set of standards, and also searched for a way to track ground transportation movement. The goals were twofold: standardize policies, and generate fees to offset operational costs like landscaping and snow plowing. Bradshaw knew that radio frequency identification (RFID) was prevalent at other airports but wanted to explore other options via a request for proposals. 

Project: Tracking Ground Transportation Providers 
Location: Roanoke-Blacksburg (VA) Regional Airport
Est. Cost: $35,000 implementation fee & $45,000 annual subscription for system maintenance, license fees & server infrastructure. (Costs vary according to site-specific factors such as number of beacons & sensors.)
Beacons Installed: 130
Antennae Installed: 2
System Integrator: GateKeeper
Beacon/Antennae Manufacturer: Piper Networks
Vehicle Tracking Technology: Low-Energy Bluetooth
Communications Technology: WI-FI or wireless cellular
Primary Benefits: Increased revenue from ground transportation access fees; enhanced ability to manage curbside traffic
Additional Benefits: Minimal infrastructure & upfront capital costs; no construction disruption; system can be expanded to track airside vehicles & equipment 

The project team also contacted GateKeeper Systems, which provides a variety of technologies for ground transportation management and parking access control. The firm's president, Lynn Richardson, verified RFID as a popular option but also detailed its budget implications: The tags for vehicles are reasonably priced, but installing RFID readers around roadways requires communication lines, power, and structures to mount readers and antennae. "RFID has been used in 90% of ground transportation systems at airports; it's the most popular mechanism," he reports. "[But the infrastructure costs] add up. What I have found over the years is that it's often more expensive than small and medium-sized airports can afford."  

While researching the technology for ROA, the team determined that over half the project cost would be for civil and electrical work to create two RFID locations, because they were relatively far from ground fiber and power.  

"The best place to mount an antenna is on a bridge or an overhead sign," advises Richardson. "There are plenty of overhead structures, and the antenna is only about the size of a pizza box; but it has very specific characteristics on how high it can be, what direction it must face, and so on, to capture the [signal from] vehicles. A larger airport can recapture the costs of the installation much faster, but this wasn't a good fit for Roanoke Regional." 

Ultimately, the airport shelved its request for proposals, and GateKeeper searched for other options. In 2016, it suggested using Bluetooth beacons, and ROA agreed to a two-month pilot project. After testing the system late last year, the airport reached an agreement with GateKeeper for an ongoing subscription. Now, ROA requires all ground transportation providers to carry beacons in their vehicles so it can monitor how many trips they make to the terminal. 

Mid-Project Addition
Initially, the project team focused on taxis, limos, courtesy shuttles and other traditional commercial providers. But when the airport reached an agreement with Lyft and Uber early this year, it gained one more category of vehicles to track: transportation network companies (TNCs). 

Finding a way to capture access fees from TNCs and other ground transportation operators was fairly high on the airport's list, recalls Richardson. "They wanted to know what was going on at the curb," he explains. The airport's specific questions included: How many trips were various operators making? When do we need enforcement to ease curbside congestion? What's the best time to perform maintenance? 

Answering such questions will help ROA evolve its ordinances fine-tune contract terms for taxicabs and limos, says Richardson. "Clearly, TNC presence is driving some of this," he notes. "As TNCs start to take a larger share of the market, taxis, limos and shared ride [providers] want to be sure it's a level playing field."

Knowing that Uber and Lyft use GPS data from drivers' cell phones, the airport considered it as a possible tracking option. Not having to install equipment in vehicles was an attractive advantage, but the ability for drivers to turn off GPS tracking (and therefore manipulate traffic data) proved to be a deal breaker. 

Currently, the airport charges all ground transportation providers access fees of $0.50 to $1.00 per trip, plus a monthly fee that varies with the class of service (taxi, limo, TNC, etc.) "We expect increased revenue with data mining," comments Bradshaw. "After three months, I could look at it and see what kind of usage we have and how that ties to enplanements to determine if it follows our cyclical business." 

Worth a Try 
During the pilot late last year, the airport assessed three primary elements: installation logistics, ease or difficulty of configuration, and operational accuracy. The 90-day trial period allowed ROA to use the system to track vehicles, manage curbside movements and generate data that it then crosschecked with manual counts.

To help ROA get a feel for the system, the project team began by installing beacons in 10 of the airport's own maintenance and operations vehicles. One ground transportation provider, a limousine company, also volunteered to participate with 15 vehicles. The outside vendor helped verify the system's accuracy by comparing the data sent by the beacons with trip logs kept by drivers. 

The beacons are small-about the size of a hockey puck-and operate with very low voltage, notes Richardson. Each is assigned a unique ID number that identifies the vehicle it is installed in. (ROA placed them on vehicle dashboards during the pilot, but they can be mounted almost anywhere, such as on windshields or under dash panels.) Fixed sensors pick up signals from the beacons to track the vehicle. ROA located its sensors under the canopy on the terminal loop road to protect them from inclement weather. "Wi-Fi and power were already there-that's part of what makes it so easy to use," Richardson remarks. "At any airport, staff electricians can mount an antenna on the side of a building, a pole, a rain gutter... just about anything will work." 

ROA's sensors are configured to pick up signals within a radius of up to about 500 feet, and the beacons' reach can be adjusted to various lengths, notes Richardson. "So if I had 10 vehicles in a parking lot, each with a beacon in it, and we installed a sensor at the entrance to the parking lot, we would pick up those 10 cars immediately," he explains. 

The airport commissioned Piper Networks from San Diego to provide proof of concept services. It also set up the beacons and tested the sensors installed on the airport grounds. Piper works in a variety of vertical markets in proximity technology; one of the company's largest deployments is the New York City subway system, which uses beacons to collect data for notifications about arriving trains, countdown clocks and other efficiency-based protocols. 

At ROA, Piper also provided the cloud-based platform that collects data in real time. The system then runs the data through a proprietary algorithm so GateKeeper can translate it into counts.

"Beacons can be used for a variety of things," says Piper Networks CEO Robert Hanczor. "Some airports are using them for customer service and notifying customers of specials and coupons, but we have always believed this technology had a home in field operations. We started talking to GateKeeper about the potential for us to provide a service to airports by effectively counting the visits of livery vehicles and other transportation companies to see how they are using the space. Then the airport can use the data to manage the revenue and are properly compensated.

"The primary benefit of beacon technology is that the system runs with almost zero human involvement," continues Hanczor. "GateKeeper receives our data, they feed it to the airport, and the entire process is automated...You have a passive system that requires very little maintenance and is incredibly easy to scale."

With its pilot project in the rearview mirror, the system at ROA now receives signals from 130 beacons in vehicles owned by ground transportation providers and the airport. And the entire system was installed and operable in four hours-exactly what the team hoped, notes Richardson. 

Additional Applications?
With beacons establishing a track record for tracking ground transportation vehicles, Hanczor is considering extending their capabilities to first responders and airfield management personnel. 

"Everyone is concerned about safety, so if we can see which vehicles certain beacons belong to, it's easy to gather information on where the vehicles are and if they are where they should be," says Hanczor. "Using a mobile device, security personnel on the curbside can get a sense of who is nearby.  We believe having that information instantly available increases the service and safety. For instance, if there is a parked car in front of the airport and the driver was not there, the security officer could see if this was a licensed vehicle and figure out who is driving it."

When it comes to tracking ground transportation providers, Bradshaw considers the airport's new beacon system a success-from a technical perspective and for cost purposes. If fact, he says he can't think of anything else a more expensive RFID system would have added.

"When we started looking at solutions to our challenges, I thought the technology was readily available out there that would work for us, but the cost was prohibitive," he reflects. "What surprised me was that we could take an existing technology we have in Bluetooth-which we have been using for a decade already-and incorporate it in this application. If I didn't have this technology, we wouldn't have this opportunity to improve our operations." 


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