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Keeping the Skyways Clear with FME

KDOT Aviation uses FME to transform FAA airspace descriptions into 3D Google Earth geometry for the award-winning Kansas Airspace Awareness Tool.

Imagine you’re on the last leg of your road trip, almost home, driving through a dark, foggy night, your headlights barely picking out the details on the road ahead. Now imagine doing that in an airplane, and you’ll have a bit of an idea of what it’s like when pilots land their aircraft under “instrument” conditions – with no visual cues, they rely completely on what their instruments are telling them in order to land safely. So the path that they fly along has to be kept clear of obstructions like cellular towers, tall buildings, and – increasingly – wind farm turbines that can reach nearly 600 feet in the air.

Aviation is more than just a quick way to get from A to B. In Kansas, approximately 138 public-use airports not only contribute more than $10 billion and over 47,000 jobs to the economy – they also ensure that air ambulance services are there when you need them. As Jesse R. Romo, Deputy Director, Airspace & Special Projects at the Kansas Department of Transportation’s (KDOT) Division of Aviation tells us, “Our goal is to have air ambulance service readily available to 95% of the state’s population, especially in bad weather, and to do that, we need to preserve our airports’ usability, funding – and airspace.” What, as you may be thinking by now, does this have to do with FME?
KDOT Aviation needed a better way to analyze the effects of proposed vertical constructions – and a better way to communicate that information to the public. And so they issued an RFQ, made possible by a grant from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Airports Division, to build an online tool to assist. That’s when Burns & McDonnell and FME entered the picture – and the Kansas Airspace Awareness Tool (KAAT) came to be.

The KAAT displays a 3D representation of the complex airspace network along with available existing structure data in Google EarthTM. More importantly, it lets the user place objects – like buildings, towers, windmills and transmission lines – in their proposed locations, specify their height and size, and instantly see if there will likely be airspace considerations affecting their plan. One click will check the structure against the FAA’s notice criteria tool, and report back the results – whether its proximity or intrusion into critical airspace is a consideration under the FAA’s regulations.

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There were some challenging components. The KAAT is available to the general public, not just GIS pros, and so the interface needed to be intuitive. 3D was a given, and the airspace data, which changes regularly, needed to be kept up to date without bringing in outside expertise on a regular basis. Google Earth was a natural choice for the interface, and FME was Burns & McDonnell’s workhorse of choice for the complex processing going on behind the scenes.

James Katz, Senior IM Specialist at Burns & McDonnell tells us a bit about the architecture involved. “Airspace design is complex, and generally done in a 3D CAD environment,” he says. “The designations are published by the FAA in a verbose form, and we use an FME workspace to mathematically interpret those descriptions and dynamically create the 3D geometries for Google Earth.” FME also enables KDOT Aviation to maintain FAA data updates on their own.

The KAAT isn’t just a valuable tool for developers – KDOT Aviation themselves have benefited greatly from having more accurate data as a basis for analysis, navigating disconnects between agencies, and clearly communicating their concerns to stakeholders. When a wind farm expansion was proposed just three miles north of the Ellsworth airport, existing FAA regulations determined it as “No Hazard”, even though a runway extension supporting more precise instrument approaches (and therefore more accessibility in bad weather conditions) had been previously approved. With the help of visualization in the KAAT, the decision was ultimately reversed.

“The KAAT has been overwhelmingly successful in helping us balance development – particularly renewable resource development – with our goal of aviation safety, sustainability and public service,” says Jesse. “And it has evolved from an engineering tool into a statewide airspace protection program we like to call Aeris Vigilis.” Many have taken notice – the team of Burns & McDonnell and KDOT Aviation were honored with a 2012 American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) Engineering Excellence Award for the project, and KDOT Aviation themselves are honored in 2012 with both the National Association of State Aviation Officials’ Most Innovative Program Award and the President’s Award in Aviation from the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials. High praise indeed – and we’re proud that FME has helped make it happen.

Check out the Kansas Airspace Awareness Tool at safe.local/KAAT.

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