Keeping aircraft flying safely and on time is the raison d’être of any airport – including those that have to contend with severe winter conditions. Fortunately, technology continues to evolve, making snow clearance more and more efficient
In 2017, Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport served 40.1 million passengers, 17.8% more than in 2016. According to British research company OAG, that same year Sheremetyevo was the most punctual airport in Europe among those handling 20-30 million departing passengers. Its departure punctuality score was 83.55% – in spite of the often challenging weather it experiences.
Head of press service Roman Genis points out: “The main difficulties that the airport faces are weather hazards in the autumn and winter periods, such as freezing rain, intense black ice, and sudden changes in air temperature, the occurrence of which has grown in recent years.”
Plus: “The airfield is cleaned in conditions of high-intensity aircraft movement and increased take-offs and landings,” he notes. “High-quality cleaning is maintained through close co-operation with the State Air Traffic Management Corporation, the main carrier Aeroflot PJSC and Sheremetyevo Handling.”
Sheremetyevo has a fleet of modern ground support equipment supplied by the world’s leading manufacturers and operated by skilled staff, who frequently undergo specialised training.
According to Genis: “This includes plough/broom/blower towed vehicles, de-icing vehicles, milling and rotor snow-cleaning equipment, plough/broom/blower self-propelled vehicles, tracked and wheeled bulldozers, tractors with a range of attachments for various applications, and friction coefficient testers.”
Sheremetyevo – which is currently investing in an expansion programme that includes the construction of a third runway (which was officially commissioned into serviced on 19 September this year) and development of its passenger and cargo facilities – continues to invest in equipment to keep pace with its growth in size and throughput.
Meanwhile, far away…
Located 4km from the city of Ushuaia, close to the very tip of Argentina, Malvinas Argentinas International Airport often plays host to cruise passengers bound for Antarctic adventures. It is operated by Buenos Aires-headquartered London Supply Group, which was founded in 1942 and launched its airport division 50 years later.
Besides Ushuaia, the firm operates other international airports in the region at Santa Cruz (El Calafate) and Chubut (Trelew). It is also active in various other fields, including duty free shops, free trade zones and maritime supply.
Malvinas Argentinas can accommodate two large aircraft (such as B747s or A340s), two medium-sized aircraft (such as B737s, A320s or E190s) and one smaller aircraft (like the F28) simultaneously.
Including both commercial and private flights, Malvinas Argentinas International Airport handled a total of 7,247 movements in 2017 and 6,916 in 2018. María Taratuty, director of communication and public affairs at London Supply Group, points out that passenger load factors on last year’s flights were significantly higher than in 2017, however. She hopes the total number of arrivals and departures in 2019 will reach 7,600.
Considering the effects of the climate on operations at the airport, Taratuty explains: “Although the city of Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, is located in the south of Argentina and very near Antarctica, it is during the winter months from May to September that we receive the most snowfall.”
However, it can also snow there – albeit less heavily – as early as March and as late as December. “According to data from the National Meteorological Service, we received a total of 77cm of snow in 2018 – a greater quantity than in 2017 and 2016, but far less than the 142cm that fell in 2015,” she adds.
Before a snowstorm, airport staff evaluate the weather conditions and meteorological data. Following this analysis, the process of removing snow from operational areas begins; a key focus, of course, is minimising alterations to flight schedules.
Depending on the severity of the event, and always with operational safety as the primary focus, special circuits are sometimes made in order to improve the conditions for landing and take-off, Taratuty says.
Malvinas Argentinas has a range of specialist and multi-purpose snow clearance equipment such as snow ploughs, solid spread hoppers, liquid sprayers, snow brooms, snow throwers, mini-loaders and trucks, plus the requisite materials, supplies and a repair and maintenance workshop.
Specifically, the airport’s ice and snow removal fleet comprises:
- An Oshkosh 4×4 multi-purpose truck with front and side shovel for snow removal, plus hopper and urea disperser
- A multi-purpose GMC-RPM Tech 6×4 truck with front and side shovel for snow removal, plus hopper and urea disperser
- A multi-purpose GMC-RPM Tech 4×4 truck with front and side shovel for snow removal and mounted snow blower (with a capacity of 5,000 tons per hour)
- An Oshkosh 4×4 truck with a 7m snow broom and air blower
- An International truck with 5m snow broom and air blower
- A Deutz 4×4 tractor with hopper and urea spreader
- A Ford 4×4 dump truck
- Two Nissan 4×4 pick-up trucks with double cab for technical support tasks
Plus: “Recently, we invested more than US$800,000 in an Oshkosh XF Broom with sweeper and blower functions; it is the most modern of its type in South America. We are expecting the arrival very soon of a new Oshkosh unit, equipped with shovels and hopper,” Taratuty confirms.
A staff of 12 people is assigned to the operation of this snow clearance equipment. Known among the airport community as ‘Team Lima’, they are responsible for ensuring the safety, maintenance and clearance of the runways.
Taratuty considers: “Snow clearance methods are advancing and being perfected as new technology develops. The availability of ever-more efficient machines, as well as continuous training, is simplifying the task of runway staff and driving a qualitative and quantitative leap in productivity and care for the environment.”
Currently, in order to minimise the environmental impact of its snow clearance operations, Malvinas Argentinas uses equipment fitted with mobile temperature sensors that help to optimise the use of anti-freeze agents. In addition, its fleet’s diesel engines comply with Euro V standards, which have been applicable in Argentina since 2016.
“In the future, it may be possible to incorporate new energy sources such as wind, solar and even tidal power at airports like Ushuaia that are located near the sea,” Taratuty goes on.
“Such airports could apply these forms of energy to radiant surfaces with the aim of minimising the mechanical work required for snow clearance, resulting in even better operational conditions during Tierra del Fuego’s hard winters.”
Research and development
One area that is receiving a great deal of attention nowadays is automation. Over in Norway, or instance, Yeti Snow Technology spent last winter testing its autonomous snow clearance vehicles.
John Emil Halden, Yeti project manager at Semcon (which co-owns Yeti in partnership with GSE supplier Øveraasen and outdoor power tool specialist Husqvarna), explains: “At Oslo Airport last winter we did 40 test runs – 12 of which had no intervention from the driver. Each test took one hour and we covered the whole airport, following the normal route.
“We also participated in actual snow clearance operations. We carried out full snow clearance with two autonomous vehicles at the front of the group and more than 20 vehicles in total working together.”
The biggest challenge, Halden notes, was finding time after each test run to fine-tune parameters ahead of the next one. It was vital to have access to the vehicles, skilled personnel and appropriate tools at those times.
He goes on: “The best outcome was learning how to operate in a working airport, with other vehicles, aircraft, schedules, different teams working shifts and all the normal movements taking place. We had to adjust the autonomous operations a bit to work with the rest of the operations. We didn’t have to alter much, but we did learn that we needed to be able to adjust the vehicles’ speed on the fly to fit in with other operations.
“A planned operation uses a fixed speed or set duration for the task, but in reality you may need to slow down to let a plane pass or make room for other vehicles. You need to be close to the operation – say, in the first vehicle or a control car – to react to the movements of other entities.”
At present, the Yeti team is hard at work on the control software and hopes to take the system from a pilot to a commercial product within the year. Noting the numerous requests for demonstrations, Halden says he is confident of winning customers once the system is available on the market.
As regards implementation, there are questions of budget, skillset and suitable vehicle stock. For instance: “Retrofitting doesn’t work with very old vehicles – but with newer vehicles, maybe two or three years old, it’s definitely possible,” Halden says.
There are four steps in the implementation of Yeti’s technology:
1) Use the software to plan the best and quickest snow clearance routes and methods
2) Install the equipment to monitor and log where the vehicle is and compare the plan with the actual operation, so that experienced drivers contribute to continuous improvement
3) Enable ’driver assistance’, whereby information is displayed in real time on a screen in the vehicle, rather like a navigation system, to tell the driver where to go, how well he/she is following his line, how to operate the snow clearing equipment and so on
4) If the vehicle is ready for self-driving, the information used in the ‘driver assistance’ stage is sent directly to the vehicle itself
Halden pointed out that in the end, snow clearance vehicles can only do as good a job as the snow clearance plan allows. “Many airports need to improve their planning, especially if they rarely get snow – which tends to mean they use temporary staff who are less skilled in snow clearance.”
Semcon is also involved in Sweden’s Autonomous Vehicles for AirPorts (AVAP) research project, which aims to demonstrate how vehicle automation can safely help to reduce costs and make airport operation more efficient.
“Our part of the project involves developing an autonomous tractor designed to keep runway edge lights clear of snow,” says Anne Piegsa, technical project manager at Semcon. “This may not seem like much, but the runway gets closed down if 15% of the lights are non-operational, and this causes significant delays and costs. But more seriously, this presents major safety risks as well.
“One of the problems with clearing snow around runway edge lights is that a great deal of precision is required on surfaces that are not always smooth. This is time-consuming work that can be streamlined by means of our autonomous solution. This will also free up staff capacity, allowing them to work on other safety- related tasks that are not suitable for automation,” Piegsa adds.
Semcon is using a Lundberg 6250 tractor that has been fitted with sensors and a computer, enabling it to calculate how to complete tasks sent to it via 4G. The tractor is controlled by the Yeti Control System – the same technology that Yeti is developing for autonomous snow ploughs.
Other elements of the collaborative project include monitoring solutions using drones, automatic mowing and friction measurement systems. The various systems and vehicles have now been demonstrated together for the first time at Örnsköldsvik Airport in Sweden.
Husqvarna Group became an equal co-owner of Yeti Snow Technology in September this year. The two companies have worked together in the past, but Halden is confident that the new relationship will enable Yeti’s self-drive technology to be used in other areas beyond snow clearance.
Hans Peter Havdal, division manager at Semcon, agrees. “We have developed a technology for self-driving vehicles in the very toughest conditions, and this has given us a great deal of knowledge in the area. Partnering with Husqvarna opens new doors for Yeti Snow Technology to scale up and further industrialise the solution.”
Husqvarna’s grass cutting technology, for instance, could be combined with Yeti’s autonomous solutions to streamline what can be a time-consuming job at airports.