Tim Haines
October 1, 2020

The future of apron operations is digital. Here, ADB SAFEGATE CEO Christian Onselaere tells about where we are going and how ADB SAFEGATE will help us get there.

What are the challenges facing apron operations?

The apron is the major choke point in airport operations.  As such, it is key to improving airport efficiency - what goes on there determines how quickly aircraft are turned around and how often the apron can accept new aircraft. Most of the time that an aircraft spends on the ground is during the docking and turn process – if we could reduce the turnaround time by even just a few minutes, this could dramatically increase traffic throughput.

Each flight delay or cancellation can cost airports $1,200 in profits or a total of $1 billion – on the plus side, around a quarter of all disrupted flights can be mitigated by the airport taking action.

This means that using the available apron space in a more efficient way is the key to boosting airport capacity.

When an aircraft is being turned around, it can be difficult to know how things are progressing. Apron control, Departure Manager (DMAN) system and ATC officials all need a good idea of what is happening.

To improve efficiency, we need a more integrated approach. Currently at most airports everyone concentrates on their own role without realizing the effect their actions can have on the chain of events. This can lead to delays - there is no point in making best use of available runway space if aircraft are stuck at the apron, so the apron is the key to making everything work smoothly together and is the ideal way to interconnect landside with airside.

So, ATC, airside, apron and terminal all need to work together, because what one part of the process does, can have an effect.  

What is meant by the Digital Apron?

The Digital Apron is a concept that combines innovative technology and ADB SAFEGATE’s extensive expertise in apron operations - the overall goal is to make operations at the apron safer, more efficient and more sustainable.

This integrated apron, where we get the information out of the silos and use it in better ways to improve airport efficiency, forms our Vision 2020. Much of this vision can be achieved

right now using the right solutions and ensuring they can all work together as part of a single whole.

We see the digital apron as a key example where all stakeholders need to collaborate very closely - only by close collaboration, aided by integrated systems, can the digital apron become a key element in airports’ and airlines’ strategy to drive efficiency.

ADB SAFEGATE has defined four key pillars that will transform airport operations of the future.

The first pillar is awareness - making sure everyone on the apron has the information they need to do their job effectively. This is achieved by bringing together terminal, gate, tower and AGL systems to give everyone involved a complete, real time view of what is going on.

The second pillar is predictability - being able to predict what might happen to give us a chance to cope with capacity constraints. Part of this is improving our ability to predict by using techniques such as Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence.

Decision support is also vital - systems that help people make better decisions by suggesting courses of action to deal with new conditions. To some extent, we have achieved this with our existing solutions, but we want to make more use of techniques such as data analytics that could give much better insight.

We are also looking towards more automated and autonomous ramp operations. Advanced surveillance and detection solutions, like Safedock X, provide greatly improved safety around the apron, cutting human error. Clear, automated processes allow decisions to be quicker, giving better predictability, while shorter turnaround times and clean energy give more sustainable operations.

What technologies are you developing to make this vision a reality?

Key capabilities available now and under development by ADB SAFEGATE include Turn Manager, an activity tracking tool that helps the dispatcher or ramp agent manage the turn process. It supports Airport Collaborative Decision Making (A-CDM) by sharing and collecting data and A-CDM milestones.

An automated Resource Management System (RMS) helps airports and airlines make best use of resources such as aircraft parking stands, passenger boarding gates and baggage facilities. It assigns resources to three segments - Arrival Tasks, Departure Tasks and Parking Tasks.

“we have defined 4 key pillars that will transform airport operations of the future.”

Another solution is Safedock X, which provides separate displays for ground crew and for pilots with information about the status of the turnaround process. For example, pilots could see exactly when a ground power unit is connected to the aircraft, allowing them to switch off the onboard APU.

What is your ultimate vision of what the Digital Apron could become?

In the longer term, we can look forward to our Vision 2025, where IoT applications supporting completely autonomous vehicles, tenders and baggage carts – a fully automated apron, where robots and autonomous vehicles deliver baggage, fuel aircraft, clear debris and perform a wealth of other tasks, all faster and more accurately than humans.

Airports could conduct surface operations more efficiently, allowing more flights in and out of the same ramps and taxiways. Although a fully automated apron is still some years away, the beginnings of the technology is already in use on roads today. Level 5 automation, where a vehicle performs all driving tasks with no human intervention, could be a good fit in the highly controlled environment of an airport gate – so we could well see fully autonomous self-driving vehicles at the airport much sooner than on city streets.