Virtual Ramp System at Kansas City Int’l Provides 360-Degree View of Airfield

Virtual Ramp System at Kansas City Int’l Provides 360-Degree View of Airfield
Kristin V. Shaw
Published in: 

After four years of construction and many more years of planning, Kansas City International Airport (MCI) opened its new $1.5 billion terminal this February. With 39 gates, 1 million square feet of terminal space and 6,200 parking spots, the new facility represents the largest single infrastructure project in Kansas City’s history.

Behind all that new infrastructure is the technology that makes MCI hum. One of those crucial pieces is a new $7.6 million virtual ramp control system (VRCS) from Saab. And it’s not a whiz-bang frill. Because of the shape of the new terminal, the system is critical for safe ramp operations. The two digital tower camera houses and eight supplemental cameras give ramp controllers a 360-degree view of FAA-controlled movement areas and non-movement areas that are overseen by the airport.

The old MCI had a “horseshoe” configuration with three terminals (A, B and C). Picture the head of a certain iconic cartoon mouse, but with an extra ear. The new terminal is shaped like a capital H. Passengers enter through one side and funnel through the TSA checkpoints. All the A gates are immediately adjacent to the new Arrivals Hall, along with amenities like restaurants, shops and a quiet room. Travelers with flights departing from the B concourse connect through the crossbar of the H and head to the gate on the other side of the terminal.


Project: Virtual Ramp Control

Location: Kansas City Int’l Airport (MCI)

Key Components: 2 digital tower camera houses, each with 14 cameras; 8 supplemental cameras

Cost: $7.6 million

Funding: Bonds (as part of new terminal project)

Timeline: Bid issued Sept. 2021; contract award finalized Dec. 2021; construction & activation prep Jan. 2022- Feb. 2023

Go-Live Date: Feb. 28, 2023

Contract Terms: 3-phase implementation; 5 years of ramp control services

Software, Contract Lead: Saab Inc.

Staffing Support: Robinson Aviation Inc.

Construction Drawings & Construction Management: Garver

Key Benefits: 360-degree visibility of ramp area & entire airfield; expanded line-of-sight for ramp controllers

For both operational and budgetary reasons, MCI opted to keep the original air traffic control tower, which sits east of the new terminal. As the team ran computer simulations to determine how traffic would move across the taxiways, it identified the need for extra “eyes” and determined a VRCS was the best solution.

On the west side of the B terminal, there is only a single Group III taxi lane; and the semicircular end caps feature dual Group III taxi lanes. Once an aircraft leaves the taxiway and segues onto the ramp area, control of the aircraft transfers from the FAA to non-controlled portions of the airport ramp. As the new airport was being reimagined, planners foresaw certain situations in which the ramp might be locked up. In addition, they also had to create a path to and from the deicing pad.

“We recognized a line-of-sight issue on the back side of the terminal, and we knew that controllers in the tower could not see the aircraft cleanly,” explains Ian Redhead, MCI’s deputy director of Operations and Maintenance. “We don’t want aircraft pushing off into blind turns.”

Enter virtual ramp control.

Going Virtual

Marcel Trommel, senior program manager for Saab, says that VRCS technology has been evolving over the last decade or so. It started out as a remote air traffic control system for small airports in northern Sweden, Saab’s home country. After testing the technology locally, the company deployed it internationally as an air traffic and ramp control solution for airports that didn’t warrant a control tower or have the necessary personnel.

The VRCS works in tandem with Saab’s Aerobahn surface management tool, which collects data from various software tools and allows staff to monitor operations on one integrated platform. Combining that information into one interface offers more collaboration and improves options for safety, environmental impact and efficiency.

Redhead had been keeping tabs on Saab technologies for several years, speaking with representatives at the aerospace company at different conferences to review its latest products, and he was intrigued by virtual ramp control. During the design process, he and his technology team visited Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL), which has been using a VRCS since 2017. Its system is an integration of many components.

The team then saw the Saab system in action at George Bush International Airport (IAH) in Houston, and was impressed. Here, United Airlines is responsible for staffing the ramp control positions. At FLL, however, the airport partners with Robinson Aviation Inc. for operating staff. After seeing both approaches and reviewing the proposals, Redhead felt a collaboration with Robinson would work at MCI, too.

“One of the reasons I was impressed with Saab is because they offered a turnkey contract,” Redhead says. “I got a good feeling meeting with the individuals at Robinson Aviation, and I liked that I could have one contract.”

MCI released a competitive request for proposals in summer 2021 for the technology, equipment installation, infrastructure work and equipment support, and Saab won the contract over several other bidders. In December of the same year, MCI awarded the contract to Saab, with Robinson Aviation as a subcontractor to operate the system. The project kicked off promptly in January 2022 for a Feb. 28, 2023, go-live date.

“The schedule was critical, and there was no room for error,” Trommel says. “Between the contract award and having the system ready was about 13 months, which is pretty quick.”

Staffing Up

Nathan Bourgeois, division manager of Aviation Services for Robinson, brought a host of experience to MCI. Bourgeois has been with the company for 18 years—10 as a traffic controller and six years managing an air traffic control tower; then he became an area manager for 42 towers.

Currently, Robinson Aviation provides air traffic controllers and operates more than 100 air traffic control towers for the FAA.

“Essentially, we are an air traffic control staffing agency,” Bourgeois explains. “The expertise we have allows us to reach past air traffic control, and ramp control is a great place for that. The ramp environment is the last part of the air and space system that is uncontrolled; we provide order.”

At MCI, Robinson stations one ramp controller at the north position, another ramp controller at the south position, and a supervisor that oversees both locations. The supervisor also rotates in for operational duties when each of the controllers needs a break. 

Bourgeois took the helm of ramp staffing activities in July 2022, about seven months before the new terminal was scheduled to begin operating. In that time, he had to hire a full staff, develop a training program, create letters of agreement and create documentation for operation of the new VRCS.

His first hire was a “good human manager who treats people with respect and works with all the stakeholders.” The manager, Chris Thigpen, started 60 days before the new control system went operational; 30 days later, they selected the rest of the staff together. 

By the time they completed the hiring cycle, Bourgeois had established and documented the operating procedures. Despite his own years of tower experience, he did not require incoming staff to have air traffic control experience.

“I look for good humans,” Bourgeois says. “I can teach anyone how to do ramp control, but I can’t always teach them how to be good people. They need to work well together.”

New team members were trained with a giant diagram of the airport, using toy planes to simulate movement around the ramp. They practiced deconflict strategies and learned how various movements affect other actions. It might sound quaint that Robinson uses paper maps and toy planes for high-tech training, but Bourgeois says it’s very common and effective.

“It’s easy to move planes from place to place in three dimensions,” he explains. “We train staff in the classroom and then do on-the-job training until controllers are good enough to do it on their own. We observe them and monitor their grades on training sheets, and the manager makes the decision when they’re ready.”

Getting Ready

With a tight timeline and a lot of chess pieces for MCI to move around before opening its new terminal, strong communication and collaboration were important. Countless projects were happening at the same time, and the VRCS had to be shoehorned into the master plan. Integrating the technology as the terminal was being built wasn’t easy, and the Feb. 28 go-live date was set in concrete.

“We were able to achieve our goals because were very integrated and coordinated with the Kansas City Aviation team and construction teams,” Trommel says. “We all knew at what point, for example, the roof would be done enough for us to install the camera housing, and when the VRCS room would be ready to get our consoles assembled. That way, we knew when debris and dust would not be raining down on our technical equipment. The communication to get operational resolutions was happening seamlessly, and when the time came to go live, everyone was ready to go.”

Bourgeois emphasizes the importance of building trust with the FAA air traffic control staff and working closely with individual airlines to ensure safe and efficient operations.

“In Kansas City, with Aerobahn and the camera system that is in place, we can see the planes and can move them around without conflict because the software sees a problem before it happens,” he explains. “I think this is a great example of how successful you can be when you get experience, good people and technology merged together.”

Given his experience, Redhead knew the construction project would include typical challenges such as routing the power, cooling the systems and coordinating timelines. But he felt confident in his vendor choices.

“When you’re doing design build, elements of the project are all happening at the same time,” he says. “I knew Saab’s timeline was responsible and that they would get everything in on time.”

Going Live

The night before the official opening, incoming aircraft landed at the old terminal and taxied in or were towed to the new terminal. The virtual ramp controllers went to business right away as if they had been working there for 10 years, says Trommel.

“What is amazing about this is that we started in an environment that had never seen planes before, at the new terminal,” Bourgeois marvels. “Up until opening day it was only a concept. To see that come to life was very rewarding. We knew how planes would move, but until you actually see it, you hold your breath.”

Currently, MCI is among a small group of airports embracing new ramp control technologies and features, but Redhead predicts more will do so in the not-so-distant future. A number of airport representatives from around the country have already visited MCI to see its VRCS in action, and some are considering the technology for their own terminal projects.

Both Saab and Robinson are effusive about the new terminal and the possibilities to come.

“We believe that in Kansas City, if you build it, they will come,” Bourgeois says. “We hope traffic numbers will double there because we have the room for it. There is lots of capacity for growth.”


2022 Charlotte Douglas International Airport Report of Achievement

Giving back to the community is central to what Charlotte Douglas International Airport and its operator, the City of Charlotte Aviation Department, is about, and last year was no different. 

Throughout 2022, while recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, we continued our efforts to have a positive impact on the Charlotte community. Of particular note, we spent the year sharing stories of how Connections Don't Just Happen at the Terminal - from creating homeownership and employment opportunities to supporting economic growth through small-business development and offering outreach programs to help residents understand the Airport better.

This whitepaper highlights the construction projects, initiatives, programs and events that validate Charlotte Douglas as a premier airport.

Download the whitepaper: 2022 Charlotte Douglas International Airport Report of Achievement.



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