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The digital apron


Apron operations and efficiency across the entire airport can be improved by the integration of information and technology, writes Jodi Richards.

Arguably, the current volatility of trafffic levels has made the need for flexibility, close collaboration and constant communication all the more critical for airports as they strive to best meet demand.

It certainly provides a cheaper and more effective alternative to solving capacity issues than investing in costly, and often time consuming, new infrastructure.

“Instead of building more, airports need to make better use of what they have,” notes Peter Håkansson, head of gate product management for ADB SAFEGATE.

Indeed, much of what is needed to maximise the use of today’s facilities already exists — through information, says Håkansson.

He adds that because the apron sits at the centre of airport operations, it is a crucial focus for improving airport performance via the coordination and exchange of data. Faster turnarounds, run more efficiently and safely, can help airports flexibly respond to fluctuating traffic, grow revenue and improve the passenger experience.

For more than 75 years, ADB SAFEGATE has worked with its airport partners to develop integrated solutions to optimise safety and operations, and now takes integration to the next level with its Digital Apron solution.

Apron impact

In order to achieve the highest operational efficiency, safety and passenger experience levels, shared communication and data are necessary, says Håkansson.

He explains: “There are many stakeholders, which makes it complex. They all have their own information and don’t necessarily share it, and it’s difficult to get a good picture of what’s happening on the apron.”

Designed to support a more flexible operation, ADB SAFEGATE’s Safedock advanced visual docking guidance systems (A-VDGS) and web-based SafeControl Apron Management (SAM) software provide a platform to increase efficiency and situational awareness to all stakeholders involved in the aircraft turn by bringing automation and digitalisation to the apron.

SAM is a natural intelligent hub for controlling, merging, storing, analysing and predicting operational performance with an apron management perspective. Clear information keeps all personnel informed and enables a more elastic operation that helps deliver on-time departures in an ever-changing environment.

SAM enables Airport Collaborative Decision Making (A-CDM) by connecting A-VDGS to flight information systems and other equipment.

As a result, gate availability, flight status, equipment status, aircraft servicing progress and other critical information is shared in real time, helping avoid disruptions. SAM also facilitates automated billing of services for airports, and scales well to provide benefit to large or small airports, which is a mandatory need considering ADB SAFEGATE’s footprint with 200+ apron management systems worldwide, states the company’s global product manager SAM, Niclas Svedberg.

‘Tight integration’ of the airfield, tower, terminal and apron systems provides an unequivocal, single source of truth to enable collaboration among all stakeholders and drive efficiency. That single source of information can be found in the Digital Apron, which Håkansson insists “can help with optimisation of operations”.

What happens on the apron impacts everything at the airport — from safety and security to on-time departures and customer experience. The continuous arrival and departure of aircraft needs to be sequenced and managed to maintain optimum throughput and ensure safety, and with the number of personnel, vehicles and aircraft involved in this careful co-ordination, a common source of knowledge is critical.

Integrated solution

The ADB SAFEGATE autonomous Digital Apron builds on integrating processes and systems from tower, airside, gate and terminal to improve decision making. All operationally important data is collected in one view and presented in an understandable way, allowing users to extract information quickly since the system defines the relevant information for that user or stakeholder.

It is enabled by advanced technologies including fully-automated aircraft docking, data analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence and real-time video surveillance to transform airport operations.

Svedberg notes that the Digital Apron is not only collecting the data, but managing it and making sure that all stakeholders have access to the information that affects them.

“We have a strong filtering function, so that every kind of user gets relevant information for the tasks at hand and decision making process, highlighting areas in need of focus,” says Svedberg.

In an operational critical system such as SAM, a solid user management mechanism is vital to ensure sensitive information is protected and that only privileged users can control or change data.

When allowing for thin clients and mobile use it is also critical to have the necessary IT security measures in place.

With its fully integrated apron systems, airports can interface and share data with other gate operational solutions such as A-SMGCS surveillance systems, AODB, RMS and ground support equipment.

By collecting operational and sensor/technical information throughout the turnaround process and sharing it in real-time, the gate and apron area become part of the integrated solution. Better co-ordination and communication between airport functions will deliver lower costs and higher efficiency, as well as happier passengers, argues Håkansson.

“Everything we do, in the end, is about avoiding or minimising a delay, and shortening turnaround times,” adds Svedberg.

A Ramp Information Display System (RIDS) is one example of how information can be shared on the apron for optimising operations by displaying flight information to ground handlers that can be used to make informed decisions.

“This is how we integrate our internal systems for business knowledge and enhance our products as for the case of connecting baggage information from BRS. This is critical for decision making,” Svedberg explains. 

Remote marshalling technology employs cameras to allow personnel to monitor stands and has been extremely useful through the pandemic as operation and personnel numbers fluctuate.

“One person can centrally manage multiple stands, instead of one on each,” Svedberg comments. “Our systems also support ground personnel operationally by allowing them to feed important process checkpoint completions, such as informing that the stand is clear by indicating “FOD check complete.”

This can be done automatically, remotely or in our various devices as manual input, to cover all stands on an airport, contact, remote or parking bays, since equipment and infrastructure levels differ. 

The future

In the future, AI and machine learning will allow airports to analyse the likelihood of irregular operations, based on historic data and current conditions, like weather and traffic. “Having real-time information helps avoid irregular operations,” notes Håkansson.

A common set of data will eventually allow stakeholders to analyse how resources are used to ensure maximum efficiency, Svedberg says. For example, maximising gate and stand utilisation.

“When you have all the data points available, you can identify where you can improve processes and flows,” says Håkansson. “There could be significant cost savings for airports if they could share equipment between stands based on flight schedule instead of dedicated use.”

He reveals that ADB SAFEGATE is also looking into how the Internet of Things (IOT) will be applied to the Digital Apron in the future. IOT places a transponder on each vehicle and piece of equipment to report its position, optimising utilisation. Håkansson simply says: “The IOT will also allow for more data than existing interfaces.”

Intelligent integration and automation will create smarter, tightly integrated airport processes and systems that improve operational efficiency and help eliminate congestion and flight delays.

Integrated systems will enable close collaboration among all stakeholders as part of a single airport operations plan and end-to-end passenger experience management. Ultimately, the Digital Apron solution provides a higher level of awareness which means better decision-making, greater efficiency and fewer delays.

Svedberg concludes: “In the end, it’s all about better usage of infrastructure and improving on-time performance, That’s what drives cost for our customers.

“In the future we also see that more reliable and consistent information in the system enables more automised operations and support for autonomous decision-making.”

Visit www.adbsafegate.com/gate to download the white paper that explores the concept of operational elasticity and how to achieve this new and unconditional need.

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