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ADB SAFEGATE’S Niclas Svedberg argues that adopting a digital apron will help airports reduce delays and cope with rising traffic demand.

We all know how frustrating airport delays can be. Every month some 50,000 flights are cancelled, and more than half a million flights are delayed worldwide, costing airports billions in lost revenue.

It’s why airports everywhere are putting efficient and reliable operations high on their agendas as they strive to provide a competitive and superior passenger experience.

Delays can be the result of a breakdown in any of the multitude of airport operations, airside or landside. And while some delays are outside the airport’s control, such as sudden bad weather, many more could be avoided through better operations.

Nowhere is this truer than in the apron and gate areas. Linking airfield and terminal, the apron is one of the busiest areas at any airport. The continuous arrival and departure of aircraft needs to be sequenced and managed to maintain the optimum throughput and ensure safety.

The swarm of ground support vehicles and personnel traversing the apron around docked and taxiing aircraft must be choreographed precisely. At the same time, the many activities needed to turn a docked aircraft around involves multiple stakeholders who depend on accurate information to help them meet and deliver on-time departures.


Digital transformation is the solution

Airports typically operate in ‘silos’, where data is generated but not shared with other parties who could benefit from it. The result can often be uncoordinated processes that lead to inefficiencies, errors and delays.

The answer to this challenge is the ‘digital apron’, which uses new surveillance technologies, applies data analytics, tightly integrates airfield, tower and gate systems, and uses automation and the Internet of Things (IoT) to help ensure rapid, reliable aircraft turnarounds.

There are four key pillars of the digital apron. The first is awareness, making sure everyone on the apron has the information they need to work effectively. This is achieved by integrating airport systems to provide full situational awareness for more predictable, faster aircraft turnarounds for a superior customer experience.

The second pillar is predictability, being able to forecast what might happen offers the chance to take effective action to avoid capacity constraints and delays. The ability to predict is vastly improved with techniques such as Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence.

Complementing predictability, the application of advanced data analytics will help people make better decisions by providing better insights into events on the apron and suggesting courses of action to deal with new conditions.

The final pillar is automated and autonomous apron operations using advanced surveillance and detection solutions. Making use of clear, automated processes allows more effective decisions to be made more quickly. For example, automated gate allocation and all-weather aircraft guidance from runway exit to parking helps to achieve just-in-time docking that maximises gate utilisation.



The technology is here today

The digital apron is not just a future vision that’s years away. ADB SAFEGATE is creating the necessary information gathering, display, connectivity and data analysis technologies and making them available today.

The latest Advanced Visual Guidance and Display Systems (A-VGDS) are adding capabilities that make docking aircraft safer than ever. Using advanced radar systems, they can sense aircraft in low visibility, such as fog. Increasing accuracy could allow docking in the very worst weather, even in CAT III conditions, allowing airports to maximise apron capacity.

When integrated with adjacent airport systems and gate equipment, the A-VDGS supports more predictable, repeatable and shorter aircraft turnaround times, thereby increasing efficiency and profitability for the airport and airline.

By providing information on baggage handling, catering, fuelling, passenger boarding and pushback readiness on the A-VDGS and apron management system screens, staff are kept up to date on events and are better able to stick to schedules.

Fully integrated gate systems can interface and share data with other gate operational solutions such as A-SMGCS surveillance systems and ground equipment. By collecting information throughout the process and sharing it with tower and airfield in real time, the gate and apron area becomes a part of the integrated solution.


Keeping apron assets on track

ADB SAFEGATE and its partners are increasingly applying Internet of Things (IoT) technology. For example, video analytics is helping to track every apron activity to boost operational efficiency and reduce the potential for incidents and delays.

Beyond the aircraft, there are many support systems and vehicles that form a vital part of the turnaround process. Embedded IoT sensors can be used to track all assets on and around the apron, including ground power units, passenger buses, baggage tractors and trailers, loaders, catering and fuelling trucks and even personnel.

These sensors can provide more information than just location. For example, not just showing that a pushback trolley is at the gate, but also which trolley, where it came from, its next destination, if it is powered, and if it is connected and locked onto the aircraft, among others.

The wealth of data gathered can provide new insights into apron operations, helping to improve operational efficiency by ensuring the right assets are available at the right time.


A more predictable passenger journey

The collection and analysis of data streaming from integrated systems will lead to more opportunities to apply analytics technologies such as machine learning.

Machine learning can find patterns and trends in historical data to help predict times and durations more accurately, for instance correctly predicting the true taxi time of an aircraft. Trend analysis also helps to improve fundamental operational processes.

The pressure on apron and gate management systems can only grow as air traffic continues to soar, stringent safety needs to be maintained and the demand for a great passenger experience increases. But by applying integration, analytics, automation and IoT technologies, dramatic improvements to the passenger experience can be achieved.

Above all, the digital apron is about making things better, and ultimately a quicker and more convenient airport journey for passengers.

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