Innovation For Aviation Safety

by Dan McDowell
Public Affairs, Minnesota DOT Office of Aeronautics
Published in Midwest Flyer – February/March 2018

We often hear the word “innovation” in relation to aviation, but have you heard of “innovation for an application?” Quite simply, it is thinking of ways to improve safety and efficiency for a specific use, while incorporating the latest technologies. And I wanted to gather and share information on something that improves aviation safety in Minnesota, of course, but something that hopefully has a much broader potential application.

So, I contacted Dave Brand, a 27-year FAA employee with service as an Airway Transportation Systems Specialist (ATSS), located out of the Southeastern Systems Support Center (SESSC) in St. Paul, Minnesota. His career has continuously revolved around innovation, always analyzing system performance and initiating improvements to achieve a safer and more efficient airway system.

Brand had heard that Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) technicians where going to have to maintain over 300 in-pavement lights on a Runway Status Light (RWSL) System. Hearing that while remembering the tasks from the past (maintaining threshold flush mount fixtures at MSP), he developed an idea on how to maintain a very large number of flush mounts in a safe and efficient manner. He explained, “Work (on the Runway Status Lights) has to be accomplished at night with very little light, in sometimes very tough conditions, while it’s raining or snowing, hot, dry, or blowing, and technicians have a 4-hour window of opportunity to accomplish the tasks.” If you aren’t sure what Runway Status Lights are, quite simply, they are a part of a fully automatic advisory system designed to reduce the number and severity of runway incursions, and prevent runway accidents while not interfering with airport operations.

Brand continued: “I put together a rough draft of a 6’ x 10’ structure on wheels, added some features like a remote controlled hydraulic lift assembly, propane heating system and a power inverter unit with a battery, and a 7000-watt generator mounted on the back. We added a wireless night vision camera system and installed a high output LED light system, and voilà! Introducing the Mobile Service Unit (MSU).” Brand added that the MSU has a communications radio mounted inside for continuous contact with the Air Traffic Control Tower (ATCT), while working in the Runway Safety Area (RSA).

Brand consulted with a fish house construction contractor to get a rough estimate of what a unit with all the added features would cost, and presented that information to management. He received a favorable reaction and was authorized to proceed with the development of the MSU. He then started building the scope of work for procurement and only one contractor (Berkon) responded. “They modified their trailer design to accommodate the 2’ x 2’6” opening in the floor with the capability to lower the framework to within 5 inches of the runway surface,” said Brand.  He added, “Without them collaborating with us, none of this would have happened.”

The unit is a unique safety orientated design incorporating personnel accommodating features that promotes employee safety and enhances quality of workmanship. One unusual feature is a 20-gallon vacuum/pump system that is designed to efficiently remove water from a light fixture and pumping it out by means of an attached hose. Another feature is the built-in hoist assist. When a fixture cover is frozen or stuck in place, a ceiling hoist located above the access area, can assist with its removal. Also located near the opening on the floor is a one-inch thick rubber fatigue mat that reduces the strain on workers’ knees and their lower back, while working in the access area.

Brand said “…several northern tier airports have shown great interest in acquiring one of these units, but the budget restraints have dampened their quest lately. In New York, La Guardia and John F. Kennedy airports each purchased a unit last year with a couple new features, like a larger size 6’ x 12’ with a rooftop AC/heater unit. With this feature and the connection of the 20-ft power cable to a commercial power outlet, the unit becomes a warm comfortable repair shop with all the parts and tools at hand, while recharging the battery system as the unit sits idle.”

The MSU was featured in the FAA’s fall safety stand-down in 2014. Brand proudly explained that “the program is designed to promote safety in the workplace, a time to reflect and convey safety issues and coordinate any concerns within the work group management area.”

One final note on the MSU: Dave’s innovative design won the National Designated Agency Safety and Health Official (DASHO) Safety Champion Award in 2016, which is given to an official for exemplifying best practices to improve performance and create a safe and healthy work environment. The award further recognized Dave Brand for going the “extra mile” in an effort to not only make the repair and replacement of RWSLs a faster, more efficient and cost-effective process, but also for designing a unit that improves the operational environment, while increasing the safety for the field technicians.

By the way, technicians at MSP also use the MSU to repair the standard runway edge lights by pulling alongside a light needing repair. The MSU then becomes a rolling, full-service repair shop containing the tools and parts the technicians need to quickly complete the repairs.

That brings us to what this has to do with General Aviation. Well, when you are completing your Fly Minnesota Passport program and you fly into MSP, (or if you travel out of MSP on a commercial airliner), you will most certainly see the runway status lights. Maybe you’ll see the bright blue MSU along an intersecting runway and you’ll understand what it is and how it contributes to aviation safety. Who knows? Someday you might see an MSU at your local airport with technicians working quickly to repair or replace runway lights to help assure that your GA airport’s runway lights are ready when you need them.

*Special thanks to David Brand, MSP ATSS, and the fine folks of the FAA Great Lakes Region for their assistance in producing this article.

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