Airport connections

Airports are complex, multi-organisational environments requiring a wide range of different communication technologies to keep them running efficiently, as Jason Colombo, MD of Affini, explains to James Atkinson

Airport connections

Designing and installing efficient wireless systems within complex environments like an airport takes a lot of skill and know how. Affini Technology, part of the Team Telecom Group (TTG), has accrued 20 years of experience in aviation as a systems integrator, specialising in consultancy, design, deployment and in-life management of complex infrastructure technology and communication solutions.

Managing director Jason Colombo explains that the company took on its present form in 2012 following the merger of three existing TTG businesses: AirRadio, C&C Technology and Red-M Wireless. These now operate as a single business.

In terms of skill sets, Air Radio brings expertise in analogue and digital PTT (push-to-talk) trunked radio networks. ‘We run and operate radio networks in pretty much every airport in the UK for real-time PTT. But we have expanded into other wireless technologies, such as ground to air radio systems, GPS, VoIP and mobile data solutions,’ says Colombo.

Planning and design

C&C Technology brought skills that help companies implement and manage strategic IT programme initiatives, while Red M’s experience is in specialist RF engineering and consultancy. It has designed and delivered more than 1,500 radio-based networks covering PMR, cellular and Wi-Fi technologies over the last 15 years.

‘Too often people tend to find the technology and then try and implement a solution on the back of that – it’s the wrong way round. They get it wrong because they don’t plan and design projects properly and that is exactly what we do,’ says Colombo. 

PTT two-way radio communications has traditionally been the backbone of communications at UK airports and represents the traditional core of Affini’s work, but Colombo says: ‘We have seen a massive change in attitudes to wireless with the arrival of Wi-Fi, 3G and now 4G. We have a strong base of 10,000-plus devices on our networks, but we can see that PTT is in decline. Analogue radio has a limited functionality and the migration to digital of one sort or another is well underway.’

BAA runs a number of the major UK airports, including the country’s main hub at Heathrow, and has a reputation as a forward-thinking client with a tendency towards collaborative working with its contractors.

BAA also uses CDM, or Collaborative Decision Making, a European initiative developed for the aviation industry. ‘A lot of different companies share the same business process,’ points out Colombo. ‘Look at what you need to turn around an aircraft: refuellers, maintenance crews, baggage handlers, cleaners and caterers all come in to service the aircraft on a very short turnaround. 

‘But if a flight is delayed the knock on impact is high and a lot of different companies need to be informed and take appropriate action. So, CDM was created to share information across airports and the wider aviation world to create more efficient processes.

‘But if you use common applications and processes, you need a common infrastructure to communicate with.’ 

This is where Affini comes in. ‘We understand the intricacies of the aviation world and have delivered in excess of £150m of aviation projects in the last 10 years. We put in the wireless infrastructure for Heathrow Terminal 5 and are now doing something similar for Terminal 2,’ says Colombo.

Affini was also the lead architect for the overhaul of BAA’s CCTV systems. ‘BAA had around 100 different types of legacy CCTV and we did the design for the replacement CCTV across all of BAA’s individual airports in 2008,’ says Colombo. 

BAA has also invested in Wi-Fi networks, but historically on a somewhat patchy basis with pockets for BAA itself and with the likes of Boingo Wireless deploying Wi-Fi for passenger and some enterprise pockets.

Multiple interfaces

The arrival of Terminal 5 at Heathrow prompted a desire to put in a much more comprehensive and robust wireless network. An Aruba Networks Wi-Fi system was deployed in 2005, which provides a single WLAN with multiple networks running on it, including a secure, separate network for BAA staff. Passengers and retailers also use it.

Affini also designs, installs and supports command and control systems at Heathrow, generally for use by the airlines and service companies, rather than BAA, as they rely on voice and data dispatch to run their staff and operations. 

‘PTT radio fits directly into the command and control infrastructure and can make use of the applications,’ says Colombo, who adds that Affini provides support services to the likes of Zetron, whose command and control products are used at Heathrow.

As a systems integrator, Affini has to bring complex and different communications infrastructure together. ‘We bring the radio, voice and data sides together using technology like Wave on the Affini Real-Time Connect platform,’ says Colombo.

Real-Time Connect uses integration technologies, such as WAVE, to deliver a unified communications cloud. This provides a managed platform, which seamlessly connects all communication systems and devices, including radio, instant messaging, text messages, email, telephony and mobile phones. 

The idea is that clients can continue to use legacy, but very stable technology like two-way radios, whilst Affini brings new technology to the mix to bridge the gap between old and new, enabling new ways of working.

‘If you peel it back it’s a radio network stuck on an IP infrastructure with gateways to integrate legacy and new systems,’ says Colombo, who adds: ‘It is this kind of solution that will help us evolve the business away from a reliance on the PTT world to incorporate new technologies into our skills.’

Naturally, as a critical part of the nation’s infrastructure, Heathrow has the Airwave emergency services TETRA two-way radio network in place. ‘Airwave is there as an overlay and we implement and maintain that,’ says Colombo. In addition, there are two other key PTT on-airport radio systems at Heathrow – one is BAA’s, the other is Affini’s.

Both of these PTT systems are based on Affini’s sister company Simoco’s Xfin platform – an analogue trunking system, but with an IP backbone. BAA’s system is mostly used by BAA for its operations. BAA has just invested in an upgrade from analogue MPT1327 to the Xfin analogue platform. 

Colombo says: ‘We do help BAA direct its investment, but in this case we were not directly involved in the selection of Xfin, which is actually rather good and interesting for us as part of the TTG group. Effectively, BAA looked independently at the market and chose our sister company’s technology.’

Affini’s Xfin two-way radio system is used by many more organisations than BAA, with some 50-plus organisations totalling approximately 2,500 terminals. ‘We represent the tenants and service company side at Heathrow for critical communications and mobility demands,’ says Colombo.

‘The advantage of Xfin is that it provides a traditional PMR PTT infrastructure, but with an IP backbone, which means you can keep using your existing spectrum, but run a lot more data applications over it. It helps with the migration towards an all-IP infrastructure, so architecturally it is a really good solution. Simoco beats everyone else hands down for that reason.’

Colombo adds: ‘We have a continual upgrade programme to keep our own infrastructure fresh and are currently looking at moving some of our channels to digital PTT (DMR) as well as enabling PTT over mobile/cellular devices through WAVE.’

Mobile working

The demands for mobile working are rising, so Affini is also looking at ways to enable data communications to rugged handheld devices, rather than voice only. Colombo notes that more bandwidth hungry data applications are beyond the capability of narrowband PTT radio to handle, but it is trying to bring both worlds together.

‘We are extending integration to other applications – not just Xfin. We can integrate things via the Real-Time Connect platform to data applications. For example, take the scheduling of resources via data exchange. You use automatic vehicle location systems to find out where the aircraft pullers are, which ones are free, locate the best placed one and issue a task order to the driver’s mobile or in-vehicle device to push that particular aircraft,’ says Colombo.

The thorny issue of bring your own device (BYOD) is of course rearing its head at airports. Colombo says Affini is looking across all of the different wireless technologies to see how this can best be delivered. However, Affini’s experience shows that this is not just a ‘wireless’ issue.

‘The reality of deploying mobility and mobile device management is very difficult in a multi-tenancy environment,’ he continues. ‘You may have a common infrastructure from a wireless and IT point of view, but when it comes to authenticating devices or dealing with the sensitivities around data privacy and even licensing, it becomes very complicated.’ 

BAA has a stated aim to track more than 200,000 assets, not just devices, but equipment too. Affini is not directly engaged on this, but is looking to work with the operator on it.

Asset monitoring

The public cellular networks are not designed to cope with that density of usage on top of providing mobile phone access to their customers. There is no medium for providing Quality of Service on the public cellular networks to give BAA priority to monitor these 200,000 assets, so that means it has to look to private cellular providers for this type of application. 

A private 4G network would give BAA a potentially higher bandwidth and segregated capability. BAA is understood to be piloting a 4G technology solution. 

Looking ahead, Colombo says: ‘We don’t really want traditional PTT radio to disappear, but we have to recognise that it is now less about voice command and control and more about scheduling resources using mobile devices capable of running more feature rich applications. We have to keep ourselves relevant in that kind of world.’

For the likes of BAA with its complex mix of landlord and tenant environments, private and public networks, licensed and unlicensed spectrum, it is important to keep different technologies in different spaces, so it can be controlled and managed properly. 

This is because the use of unlicensed spectrum means that potentially anyone can deploy a clashing infrastructure, so depending on it for mission
critical services is not necessarily
a great option.

BAA, therefore, is looking to control the deployment of new wireless technologies (licensed and unlicensed) through a process Affini designed for it called ECAP (electronic approvals process). BAA is also looking to use private overlays (such as the 4G one mentioned above) to allow them to benefit from improvements in technologies, says Colombo.

Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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