INFORM: AI software driving ramp safety

Alexander Wendorff, Solutions Manager, INFORM GmbH, explains how to boost ramp safety with AI-driven optimisation software.

Despite considerable focus on improving airport ramp safety, accidents remain a serious problem. Many associations have been diligently tracking accidents and other safety incidents.

Among them are the Airports Council International, Australasian Aviation Ground Safety Council, European Regions Airline Association, International Air Transport Association (IATA), International Civil Aviation Organization, National Air Transportation Association, and the Regional Airline Association.

Based on the data compiled, the Flight Safety Foundation reported that an estimated 27,000 ramp accidents and incidents occur each year worldwide. That translates to one ramp-related event per 1,000 departures with a corresponding injury rate of nine per 1,000 departures or a total of 243,000 people injured annually due to ramp accidents.

There are many causes of ramp accidents ranging from inclement weather and poorly lit and/or congested areas to too many unnecessary vehicles in an already crowded area, defective equipment, or negligence. It's not unusual for vehicles, for example, tankers, to be randomly driving around to check on whether certain equipment needs refuelling which can lead to added commotion and resulting accidents.

The high rate of accidents, coupled with associated costs, have prompted the industry to take action with new training programmes and other measures. What is proving most effective, however, in preventing ramp accidents are optimisation software solutions driven by artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and other advanced technologies.

But let’s take a look first at why so many accidents occur and which safety measures have been taken so far.

Risks on the ramp
Airport ramp accidents often have a core human element. It could be human error, worker fatigue gone unaddressed, a lack of safety training and awareness, and staff turnovers. Further, a failure for ground staff to adhere to standard operating procedures reflecting best safety practices is all too common.

It is not uncommon for safety practices such as placing orange cones or warning signs around parked aircraft, operating ground support equipment (GSE) at the proper speeds and following “circle of safety” protocol to be completely ignored.

Keep in mind also the number and variety of workers all performing different tasks in the same environment – ground handlers’ staff, airport and airline personnel, engineers, airport security, etc. For many of these workers, there is ongoing pressure to perform tasks very quickly in order to support the airlines’ on-time performance.

This fast-paced environment further heightens the risk of ramp accidents, as does the ramp environment itself.

Airport ramps are bustling with lots of different activities and functions being performed at the same time, in the same crowded space. Ground teams are busy performing aircraft maintenance tasks and fuelling, loading and unloading baggage, transporting cargo, etc. Frequently, there is unattended GSE, which may randomly move across the airfield and potentially cause injury to a worker or damage to equipment.

Losses on the ramp
Another contributing factor to ramp accidents is airport construction. Major renovations come with heavy construction equipment, materials and construction workers all adding to the already hectic, congested environment. In and of itself, construction is a dangerous, hazard-prone activity. When conducted in a busy airport environment, there is increased potential for safety breaches, accidents and injuries.

In the summer of 2019, two high profile deaths on the ramp occurred in the United States. Each of the killed airline ramp agents died in what were preventable accidents. One agent, part of a two-man crew, was working at JFK International Airport in New York. While standing at the back of an aircraft, hooking a bag cart to a tug, the tug rolled and pinned him underneath.

It was not until a fuel operator saw him that he was even known to be missing and hurt. Ramp workers used a forklift to lift the tug off of the agent, but it was not soon enough. He died at the hospital.

That same summer, another ramp worker was driving a tug carrying baggage in an underlit area of Douglas Airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, which was in the middle of a $2.5 billion capital building construction project. To avoid hitting luggage, which was on the ground, the tug swerved and then flipped, pinning the worker underneath it and killing him. Industry estimates are that between four to six employees die while working on the ramp.

These deaths are regarded as industrial accidents and are investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board or other agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the United States.

Loss of life, serious injuries and equipment damage are causing losses in the area of $10 billion annually. A large percentage of these losses are expenses incurred directly by the airports and not covered by insurance since many ramp incidents do not meet insurance deductible levels. These losses relate to medical costs, repairs and disruptions to flight schedules.

Industry associations launch safety initiatives
Many industry organisations are working hard to improve safety on the ramp. For example, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) created many materials including the EASA Ramp Inspection Manual.

It specifies all aspects of ramp inspections and their objectives (e.g., to perform on-the-spot aircraft assessments to determine compliance with appropriate standards, aircraft condition, checking flight crew licenses, safety equipment, etc.).

Also delineated in the manual are the responsibilities of the ramp inspection national coordinator, which includes such functions as planning prioritised ramp inspections, supervising the ramp inspectors planning process, and ensuring the competency and training of all ramp inspectors.

Technology driving safety on the ramp
While inspections are vital to improving ramp safety, proving equally valuable are advanced software solutions designed to optimise various ramp processes, including vehicle maintenance; monitoring aircraft towing and pushback, ramp handling of aircraft turnarounds, aircraft loading/unloading, baggage handling and transport, ground transportation, and services such as catering.

AI, in particular, is facilitating precise forecasts on vehicle/equipment maintenance scheduling times, for instance, and, in doing, better managing resources while mitigating the problem of excessive vehicles in haphazard motion.

Through these accurate forecasts for maintenance, there is also a heightened level of quality in the vehicles being used. Regularly occurring equipment problems can be quickly identified via AI based on data documenting past issues.

These defects can be promptly repaired before any damage occurs. This not only increases the equipment’s reliability and performance, but also enables the number of vehicles to be reduced, while contributing to a safer ramp environment.

In addition to the actual use of a piece of equipment, for example, a baggage tractor, sensors can also be applied for observing the ramp environment and detect potential problems there.

As an example, fallen objects or obstacles can be detected, and then reported to the operations management team for the problem to be rectified. Further, queues in front of checkpoints, fuel or charging stations, etc. can be recognised and other resources can be diverted or rescheduled in good time.

There are solutions for optimising staff scheduling. Today, task processing times are primarily used to optimise processes. However, the technology can also enable expected time stamps to be clearly defined and adapted to reflect a job order’s status.

If an employee does not report by on a task’s progress by the specified time, that specific employee can be addressed directly and potential problems or accidents detected at an early stage so that additional resources can be applied to expedite the resolution.

Real-time solutions address each operation and are designed to optimise ramp activities. The software is integrated with airport’s flight information system, operational data base and other systems and reflects key factors such as the particular airline, load data, tows schedule, aircraft stand, and service level agreements. Applying the software, optimum resource management both human resources and equipment can be achieved.

Other examples of optimisation software at work on the ramp are:

  • Solutions which automatically optimise staff schedules and assignments based on individuals’ skills and qualifications, and also taking into account, the need for staff to have adequate resting time between shifts to avoid their being overtired and prone to errors which could lead to accidents.
  • Software that optimises the allocation of ground support equipment by verifying the location of a tow, baggage cart, dolly, fuel truck, etc. and its status (i.e., in-use/not in-use, loaded/unloaded, etc.) thereby eliminating the need for workers to rush around looking for GSE, creating a hazardous situation.

  • A solution designed to manage fleets and reduce the likelihood of ground handlers driving equipment in off-limit areas (i.e., taxi way and runways).

  • Software that facilitates enhanced staff communications and reporting by enabling staff to record their work progress online, report problems or changes in an assignment, as well as access scheduling and assignment information on their mobile devices.

Closing remarks
IATA has reported that 92% of all ramp accidents can be attributed to workers’ failure to follow proper procedures, a lack of personnel training, and the congested airfield environment. To reduce the number of accidents and incidents on the ramp and the associated losses, ramp safety must be an ongoing priority supported by best practices, training, and the application of technologies that help to mitigate the human factor and advance better decision-making, planning, resource management and communications.

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