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The Strategic Imperative of Digital Workflows for Airport Infrastructure

Connecting data across design, project delivery and maintenance teams helps airports improve the safety, efficiency and cost-effectiveness of infrastructure assets.

By Chris Bell, VP of Industry Strategy
Owner & Public Sector, Trimble

Maximizing the benefits from infrastructure investments

With the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) allocating $25 billion for airport projects, airport owners are energized to implement facility expansions and improvements. Throughout the country, we will see updates and upgrades to terminals, runways, taxiways, and airport-transit connections, as well as safety and sustainability advancement projects.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates the current cost of the backlog of airport modernization and safety projects to be more than $43 billion. As the nation prepares for this unprecedented investment, spending taxpayer dollars wisely is top of mind.

Technology will certainly play a role, not only in tracking money spent, but also in ensuring that projects are completed per specifications. In particular, airports that are making the transformation to digital workflows will be able to improve project outcomes throughout all stages of the infrastructure asset lifecycle—from design through construction, to operations and maintenance—and deliver more sustainable infrastructure.

Operating as essentially independent cities, airports are an ideal environment to realize the benefits of a digitized workflow, and ultimately, the digital twin, to improve the safety, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness of infrastructure projects.

Digitally transforming airport design

A digital approach to planning, design, and management using building information modeling (BIM) is well-proven to improve collaboration and productivity while reducing rework.

For instance, BIM was at the heart of a massive update project designed to provide travelers with a speedier, greener, and more efficient journey to the United Kingdom’s fifth busiest airport, London Luton. The update, scheduled for completion this year, includes two additional stations and the new, £243 million Luton DART—a fully automated and energy-efficient cable-pulled light rail system.

Digital workflows help improve project outcomes across all stages of the infrastructure asset lifecycle—from design and construction through operations and maintenance.

With each project element intertwined and dependent on one another, 3D modeling was an essential planning and design tool. The use of Trimble Tekla Structures and Trimble Connect enabled the team to integrate the 3D constructible models in various file formats and make the models accessible to everyone in one place. This integration allowed for better communication of the construction sequence, ensured more effective collaboration, and totally eliminated project delays. 

Just as importantly, the reliance on an intelligent 3D model can have lifecycle benefits for the owner/operator—certainly for construction, but also for operations and maintenance. Think of the digital twin. A digital twin is a virtual space that represents real space.

In particular, the evolution of the internet of things (IoT) is helping transform digital twins into “living” (and adapting) digital environments with important uses in the real world, such as production line analysis and smart city simulations to solve urban challenges. When supported by connected sensors, digital twins become intelligent reflections of physical things, duplicating orientation, shape, position, gesture, or motion. It’s an enhanced way to operationalize data.

A true digital twin of an infrastructure asset improves collaboration across the entire organization, creates a common understanding of what needs to be done, facilitates better decisions, and ultimately delivers superior asset performance. A digital twin in an airport environment takes on new life with mass data collection capabilities from real-time sensors and artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.

Connecting construction teams with real-time data

The construction of new or updated airport infrastructure, which ranges from runways to terminals and hangers, is where the rubber meets the tarmac.

In the construction phase, digital delivery increases transparency and improves project outcomes through modernized cost tracking, business-centric workflows, enhanced documentation, and scheduling and performance management. 

Charlotte Douglas International launched a $2.5 billion to $3.1 billion, 10-year expansion and capital investment project in 2016. Plans called for new terminal roadways, an expanded terminal and lobby, more gates, and a fourth parallel runway.

Digital solutions have played a crucial role in the project's success to date, helping transition planning and design into the construction phase while ensuring highly efficient and effective project management. Armed with modern surveying equipment and advanced geomatics technology, field crews have delivered specified results on time with increased precision. The first completed project elements, which included modernizing amenities and adding nine gates along with ramps and taxi lanes for each, utilized robotic total station solutions.

In phase two, total station technologies that combine surveying, imaging, and scanning resources proved particularly useful during work on two massive upgrades—the Elevated Roadway and South Crossfield Taxiway projects.

To effectively support the capital improvement program and construction project processes, a digital project management information system (PMIS)— in this case, Trimble e-Builder—was adopted. Creating more than 50 new processes supporting a broad range of departments, the goal was to break down adoption barriers and drive consistency and transparency by reshaping procurement practices.

With documents stored in a centralized database, project information is readily accessible and secure for everyone—in the office and in the field. As a result, project team members can easily share relevant information and collaborate more effectively. Because they hold all project data in a central location, team members have a clear audit history and can better manage schedules and budgets in real-time.

Empowering operations & maintenance with data visibility

Digital technologies also empower asset owners to organize, manage, and maintain their infrastructure. GIS-centric public asset management solutions (such as Trimble Cityworks) help transform complex data into actionable insights that help owners improve the safety, performance, and cost-effectiveness of their infrastructure assets. 

When the digital as-built is enriched with granular location-based data, owners get the information they need to proactively and efficiently manage operations and maintenance. Owners can access asphalt height information, for instance, to make better-informed decisions about how to make a road repair. Or they can use the digital as-built to diagnose the cause of an issue by accessing history about how the asset was built, the materials used, the conditions during construction, and more.

The digital as-built can also provide the basis for a digital twin that can diagnose and foresee deficiencies, perform simulations, and assess the asset’s condition within the broader context of the surrounding environment and usage once it’s in operation.

As Ryan Forrestel, President of Cold Spring Construction, noted, “Every successive project that involves the same assets that digital as-builts have already been collected on, sees further benefit from that digital data.”

The benefits of digitized data, including, ideally, a digital twin, for operations and maintenance occur when accurate as-constructed data is combined with specifications. Case in point: The maintenance engineer can pull up location, type, and details of the HVAC air handler by simply selecting the air handler icon in a 3D model. A true digital twin enables operations and maintenance teams to utilize technology like the Trimble XR10 with HoloLens 2 to see what's behind walls, floors, and ceilings for more effective actions.

“Every successive project that involves the same assets that digital as-builts have already been collected on, sees further benefit from that digital data.” 

—Ryan Forrestel, President, Cold Spring Construction

By driving informed decision-making, these solutions also help prolong the service life of the infrastructure assets and improve their resilience and sustainability.

One global airport operator has adopted Trimble AgileAssets to integrate asset management and maintenance practices to improve the efficiency, timing, and cost-effectiveness of its airfield pavement operations.

Using an innovative and unique software solution, the operator centralizes data from multiple sources, integrates previously separate workflows, and generates insights to make better strategic and operational decisions about the management of its runways, taxiways, aprons, and aircraft parking areas.

The operator has implemented these practices at 17 airports worldwide and plans to roll them out to the remaining locations in its global network of 45 airports in the coming years.

As digital workflows and digital twins become the norm, airports have a unique opportunity to greatly improve the way airport capital projects are facilitated and perhaps more importantly, operated and maintained to ensure safety, longevity, and sustainability.

This article originally appeared on Aviation Pros (September 26, 2022). Republished here with permission.

About the author

Chris Bell serves as the Vice President of Industry Strategy for Trimble’s Owner and Public Sector. In more than 20 years of industry experience, he has developed unique expertise that combines insights from the fields of engineering and construction, project and program management, and software innovation to help organizations achieve strategic success through digital transformation.