The question for airports today is not whether to implement a wireless network, but rather how to implement it. Aging infrastructure and incompatible systems push many operators towards wireless surface solution.
Passers-by had to do a double take at the massive sculpture in one of the hallways of the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Washington DC in March and April this year. 'Wireless' was written there, in big letters, with the distinctive universal wireless logo used instead of the dot on the "i".
A representation of the wireless communications industry by the International Association for the Wireless Telecommunications Industry, the sculpture is a clear indicator of the direction that communication processes at airports are heading in. Wireless applications have also pervaded the management of airports ? just as they have in countless other industries.
Sébastien Fabre, network and mobility director of Specialists in Air Transport Communications and IT Solutions (SITA), believes that wireless systems "enable significant improvements in operational efficiency and real-time information exchange".
The global company, which specialises in communications and IT solutions for airports and is headquartered in Switzerland, has long realised the potential of wireless for airports. Business travellers want internet access, airport retailers need to communicate, security staff need network connectivity, air traffic on the ground needs to be handled and airlines want to exchange information with airport departments.
"SITA has witnessed an impressive growth of demand for both passengers as well as professional users, especially in the area of baggage management and process mobilisation," says Fabre.
A number of different wireless solutions can be used at airports to enhance communications. These are mostly digital solutions, and include WiFi networks for data and voice, GPRS and 3G, as well as professional mobile radios. The applications can be used to mobilise most airport processes from maintenance to security and asset tracking.
"Current systems are very reliable, and they need to be as they support mission-critical operations," explains Fabre. "Our system designs try to prevent a specific service from ever going down. At all times the right balance is found between the ideal system architecture and its cost to the customer."
The infrastructure of an airport wireless system can roughly be divided into two areas: airside wireless and terminal wireless systems. The first area includes communication handling for planes, caterers and mechanics, as well as security solutions such as cameras and perimeter security. The second area includes all communication within the terminal between airline employees, the passenger flow process, and communication between security and first responders.
Airport communications challenges
The size and architecture of airports complicate the implementation of wireless systems, which have to be reliable, redundant, easy to use and robust. "The biggest challenge is the need to provide coverage inside a large building while at the same time covering a large area outdoors, and this must be done while paying close attention to the final cost," says Fabre. "A unique situation for airports is the presence of the large metal bodies of aircraft, which can pose a challenge for radio transmission and reception."
Wireless communication systems face another problem. As different airlines and other air transport industry players use an airport's network on a regular basis, a global standard WiFi service is necessary to regulate the traffic on the runways without failure of the system. SITA, for instance, has overcome this problem with a system that interconnects local WiFi providers at different locations.
"With this system, an airline can use the same mobile devices at any airport without any configuration change," explains Fabre.
Wireless runway lighting systems
The extent of how far the use of wireless technology at airports can go is seen in the example of runway lighting systems, used to ease aircraft movements. With traffic of, for example, ten million flights in the US alone every year, a reliable system is probably the most important factor for the safe and controlled aircraft handling at active runway intersections.
Usually, the lightning infrastructure on the airfield, which includes the runway and taxiway edge lights, threshold lighting, airfield guidance signs and the apron areas where aircrafts are loaded and refuelled, is managed and communicated over fibre optic cables. The cables run all around the airport and are therefore in danger to be damaged during works. The control system could be knocked offline ? with fatal results for the traffic on the runways.
Several airport IT providers have started to consider the advantages of those wireless networks as a back-up to fibre lines. One driving factor is the reduced installation and maintenance costs of wireless applications.
The underlying idea is that if a fibre system goes down, the communications and operations of the lightning system would continue flawlessly on a wireless radio network.
Today, most airports have switched to a radio network as the primary line of communication for lighting systems, triggered by economic and structural advantages compared to fibre.
Case study: Düsseldorf International Airport
One of the airports realising the benefits of wireless applications is Düsseldorf International Airport, Germany's third largest airport after those of Frankfurt and Munich. With an average of 600 aircraft movements a day and 19 million passengers in 2010, every single step in the airport communication is heavily dependant on reliable technologies and systems.
In 2008, its management decided to replace the airport's wired system with wireless communication applications, to meet the increasingly high demand of operational processes. SITA, which provided its professional mobile radio solution, met the special requirements of the airport with the installation of a digital radio platform and a digital radio system.
Since then all users, including all ground operations staff and airlines, have drawn on a single radio platform for every possible communication process ? and according to the airport, it has brought about a major improvement in operational efficiency.
The applied system includes a flight-oriented dialling application to enable immediate communication among every person involved in aircraft turnarounds at the gate.
Another part of the system is the security guard control. All guards use a portable device to swipe a radio-frequency identification tag at pre-defined control points on their patrol routes. This ensures that security personnel follow their routes and alerts supervisors of any problems or deviations.
The third feature of the solution is the passenger emergency call, which provides calls from the Sky Train, a monorail connection that operates between the terminals of Düsseldorf International and the nearby railway station. According to SITA, this ensures reliable communication and fire alarm signals from the train in the event of an emergency.
Speaking at the launch of the system at Düsseldorf International, Boris Padovan, SITA's regional vice-president of sales and relationship management for East and Central Europe, said: "We believe that these types of new mobile and wireless technologies will fundamentally change the way airports operate in the future, by creating innovative, cost-effective services for airports, airlines and passengers alike."
The future has already started: in recent years, many airports have moved towards wireless applications to replace aging infrastructure and out-of-date communication systems. Increased security, increased competence when handling mission-critical communications, airport-wide coverage, integrated voice and data opportunities, and cost-effectiveness have made the change easy.