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GPS Technology Supports Tracking for Airfield Anomalies

By Peter Fitzgibbon - 4th February 2013 - 13:18

Inspectors at Boise Airport in Idaho, USA, exploit dynamic electronic tracking to perform paperless, digital inspections and reports on anything on the runway that could threaten flight safety

Airfield anomalies? Sounds like a UFO or a unique atmospheric event. However, these anomalies are much closer to land and are routine airport occurrences.

In 2009, when US Airways pilot Chesley “Scully” Sullenberger was faced with landing an Airbus A320 on the Hudson River, it was an airfield anomaly during takeoff — a flock of geese — that resulted in loss of thrust from both engines.

The Hudson River landing is an extreme example, as anomalies include anything on the runway that could be a threat to a plane taking off.

But there are technologies that allow for better tracking of airfield discrepancies, such as the safety management system implemented at Idaho’s Boise Airport. Called the Eagle system, it is designed to enhance public safety and reduce delays due to airfield issues. The technology enables airfield inspectors to perform paperless, digital inspections and reports with ease. For the Boise Airport, it was like the difference between navigating with a static road map versus a dynamic GPS.

“Our previous system was paper-based,” Jeremy Wheeler, Boise’s IT project manager, told Government Technology. “while the new system is entirely computerized and takes advantage of GIS/GPS technology for accuracy, reporting as well as inventory tracking.”

The old legacy system of writing reports had the potential for human error. This new system, however, provides personnel with precise information, in real time, which improves decision-making processes that impact the safety of people on the ground and in the air.

The Eagle system, which required more than one year to launch, is tracking safety protocols according to Federal Aviation Regulations. Such airfield procedures include parameters for items such as pavement, paint markings, lighting and signage. Boise CIO Garry Beaty said that the primary reason for the upgrade was to increase passenger safety, and such tracking would allow the airport to view patterns that occur over time. “For example, we have eagles that we can’t chase off,” Beaty said. “So we’re going through the Environmental Protection Agency to see if we can get the eagles relocated.” The Eagle system would allow the Boise Airport, which has about 3 million passengers per year, to track and query events, such as eagle interferences. Additionally airport personnel can see the routes that an inspection followed, as well as review reports for specific issues, during any given date range. Each issue is plotted on an airfield map to increase efficiency in locating and correcting the discrepancy.

“As an example, the paper-based system might record that the seventh light on the left on 10R is out west of taxiway Bravo,” said Wheeler. “You would then have to go out and try to locate that light on your own.”

If the information turned out to be incorrect, then there is the potential for inaccurate decisions, which can lead to fateful results.

“Now the system plots it out,” Wheeler said, “and you can drive directly to it using the GPS capabilities.”

Other airports are using similar electronic tracking systems to improve safety in harsh weather conditions. The Pittsburgh International Airport is using software to simultaneously convey real-time airfield condition reports to various airport departments. Since everyone has the same information of up-to-date surface conditions, there can be a collective decision to improve ground conditions.

This increased airport efficiency is one of the main benefits of an electronic system. Over time, personnel in Boise will also be able to better manage inventory and infrastructure replacement needs.

As of November, the Boise Airport completed Phase 1 of the implementation. Reviews by airport staff have been excellent, specifically regarding the use of technology for airport lighting. By March 2013, there will be an enhanced second version that will include other features to fully report to Federal Aviation Requirements.

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