Wireless communication systems that link members of a ground handling crew with each other and with an aircraft flight deck are fast being regarded as a safer and more efficient option than traditional wired ramp communication systems. But the big suppliers in the airfield communications market offer a range of products – both wired and wireless – to suit all requirements
Worcester, Massachusetts-headquartered David Clark Company offers both wired and wireless headset systems for airport ramp operations. It has been a prominent brand in the aviation industry for nearly 50 years. The company helped pioneer the first noise-attenuating headsets for use by both military and general aviation pilots in 1975 and these ‘green domes’ are known worldwide for their comfort, durability and reliability.
Then, in the early 1980s, David Clark was among the first companies to offer headset systems for aircraft de-icing operations. Since that time, it has expanded its product offering to meet a wider variety of communication needs for pushback, maintenance and general ramp communications.
Its ramp communications product range includes the Series 3800 wired system used primarily for de-icing and anti-icing, and the Series 9900 wireless system for a variety of airside operations including pushback, de-icing, and general ramp and maintenance operations.
The value of wireless communication in a congested and potentially dangerous ramp environment is certainly not lost on David Clark. “With the additional benefits of our Series 9900 wireless system, there is a growing consensus among the airlines that clear voice communication is a welcome enhancement to traditional hand signals and safety protocols,” says Bob Daigle, systems manager at David Clark Company.
David Clark’s wireless headset systems include noise-attenuating headsets, belt stations and wireless gateways. Headsets are available in a variety of styles, including dual-ear, over-the-head style, with a boom-mic optimised for airport ramp environments, as well as headset-mic shield (or ‘muff microphone’) models with snap/strap assembly for clear, hands-free communication in very noisy environments.
All headsets feature earphones with stainless steel retainers and immersion-proof M-2H noise-cancelling microphones for clear communication.
Series 9900 belt stations transmit and receive all system audio to and from the gateway and the user’s headset.
Wireless gateways, which lie at the heart of these communications systems, utilise advanced digital enhanced cordless telecommunications (DECT) wireless technology with an operational range of a minimum of 300ft/90m (greater, depending on line-of-sight constraints) – more than enough range, the company notes, for pushback, de-icing and other ramp operations. (DECT is also used in wireless phone systems to connect a cordless phone to a base station.)
A single gateway can connect up to four wireless users at a time with hands-free, full-duplex intercom (ie, capable of communication in both directions between multiple parties) and push-to-talk (PTT) capability for communicating with a flight deck.
During aircraft pushbacks, wireless systems enable clear communication between wingwalkers and a tug driver, as well as between a tug driver and a flight deck, all while offering handlers greater freedom of movement than wired systems. For aircraft de-icing applications, improved communications can help avoid personal injury or aircraft damage, as well as minimise the waste of costly de-icing fluids.
Wireless systems also reduce the danger to ground handlers posed by lightning, because ground support personnel can communicate with one another and with a flight deck without any wired connections between headsets and an aircraft, and a lightning charge can travel along any wire into a headset.
Finally, wireless headset systems contribute to improved, on-time performance for carriers. “At David Clark, we believe, as do forward-thinking airlines, that keeping planes in the air starts with better communication on the ground,” says Daigle.
In the US, David Clark has supplied wired and wireless headset systems for the majority of domestic major and regional airlines, as well as third-party ground handling contractors. Military users include the United States Air Force and Air National Guard, as well as many National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ground support operations.
In Europe, its systems are in use with Lufthansa and International Airlines Group (IAG), which includes British Airways, Air Lingus, Iberia and Vuelling. Air France-KLM, Norwegian, Austrian Airlines and Air Europa are among other European customers.
In the Far East, Asian sub-continent and Australasia, China Southern Airlines, China Eastern, Air China, Singapore Airlines (SIA), Cebu Pacific, Cathay Pacific, Malaysia Airlines, Air India, Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand are all David Clark customers. In the Middle East, users include Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways, Oman Air and Saudi Arabian Airlines, as well as Turkish Airlines and Pegasus Airlines in Turkey. The company also counts the world’s biggest air cargo carriers, such as DHL, UPS and FedEx, among its clients.
Throughout the pandemic and despite the consequent collapse in the aviation industry, David Clark has found that many of its existing customers and prospective customers have remained willing to invest in appropriate and helpful technology, including wireless headset systems, which have the potential to mitigate factors that can have a negative impact on already adversely affected bottom lines (such as ramp incidents that can cause injury to ground support personnel or aircraft damage).
Plus, one feature of the pandemic-impacted, ‘new normal’ ramp environment of late has been the wearing – either by choice or mandate – of masks, which can muffle speech even in low-noise environments. To combat this problem, David Clark wireless systems offer easily adjustable VOX (voice level) settings via the belt station connected to the user’s headset. Ground handling personnel can fine-tune the VOX sensitivity to the optimum voice level as they go to ensure speech intelligibility even while wearing a mask.
The pandemic has also raised concern among ground crews regarding personal hygiene issues relating to the use of shared equipment. David Clark Company has designed its wireless headsets for easy cleaning and disinfecting. Its wireless headsets feature head pads and ear seals made from non-porous polyurethane material, making them easy to clean and disinfect after each use.
“As long as ground personnel continue to work on the ramp, we’ll solicit their feedback and continue to do anything that is required to keep them safe and efficient at whatever they do,” Daigle declares.
dBD: a growing presence
Duplex radio frequency (RF) and microwave communications specialist dBD Communications has had a tough time during the crisis but has stayed strong, and is looking to better times ahead. The Basildon, Essex-headquartered company has been forced to let go of some staff – about 20% of its payroll – over the past couple of years, as Covid “definitely took its toll on us”, confirms owner and managing director David O’Connell. However, it has not lost customers and has in fact gained some new ones – of which more later.
dBD Communications’ background is in the rail business and its wireless headset systems remain the market leader in the rail duplex communications domain, where they are responsible for about 80% of the communications systems used to connect rail workers with cabs safely and efficiently, O’Connell advises.
The company has maintained its dominance in this market and, meanwhile, it continues to grow its presence in the aviation sector. dBD has “many hats” when it comes to product lines and revenue streams, O’Connell remarks, and this has been a significant advantage to it during the pandemic.
Given that it really only entered the on-airport wireless communications market space some five or six years ago, the fact that its customers include globally active handlers such as Menzies and Swissport, while GSE manufacturer Vestergaard has bought dBD Communications headsets for open-basket de-icer teams, is impressive.
dBD has sold into countries as far afield as Australia and New Zealand in Australasia, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia in the Far East, and Qatar in the Middle East (and it has also seen some “strong interest” from Saudi Arabia), as well as in its home market of Europe.
Moreover, O’Connell reports to Airside that just recently dBD Communications sold its first systems into both the US and China, markets with huge potential for the company. This goes to show that demand still exists and investments will still be made even during a pandemic, he remarks.
In addition, around Christmas, things were “generally picking up”, and that was despite the fears over the then fairly newly discovered Omicron variant of Covid-19. As a sign of the company’s confidence, it has taken on a number of new sales agents to help promote the dBD Communications brand and its products in markets where it currently does not have a significant footprint.
dBD Communications has had to evolve, and the industry has changed, over the past couple of years – in ways that may well mean that the aviation industry will never be quite the same again, O’Connell believes.
One interesting development in the UK that he points to is declining availability of RF engineers. Communications does not appear to be an area of study that is enticing students in the country, he opines, and that has led to a shortage of the sort of skilled engineers that dBD Communications looks for. O’Connell is himself a systems engineer by trade background.
More widely, something that has become increasingly clear is that ramp operators, and self-handling airlines in particular, are now much more fully recognising the benefits of wireless headset technology for those working on noisy, congested and potentially very dangerous airport aprons.
Despite that, says O’Connell, not all apron workers yet fully exploit the benefits of wireless duplex technology. Some ramp handlers continue to walk in the footprints that they have trod around aircraft for many years when they were restricted by 12m communications cables plugged into an aircraft nose, he suggests; now, with wireless systems, handlers can have much greater freedom of movement – but some of them are not always making the most of it.
It’s an interesting point that, in the rail industry, wireless communications is regarded as attractive for safety reasons, whereas in the aviation industry those acquiring wireless duplex communications systems are largely doing so on the grounds of efficiency, O’Connell suggests. If ramp handlers are then not benefiting fully from the increased efficiencies available, that is an issue that perhaps needs to be addressed by third-party ramp handlers and self-handling airlines.
O’Connell asserts that self-handling airlines are buying into wireless, and indeed represent good potential customers for a business like dBD because they purchase in bulk. Handlers, which would seem to be a potentially lucrative clientele, actually buy in smaller numbers in terms of individual deals, because purchases are made locally rather than under centralised contracts covering large numbers of handler stations.
Both third-party ground service providers (GSPs) and self-handling airlines are looking into autonomous technologies that would speed up aircraft turnaround processes. Automated tugs are already in use at a number of airports, for example. And, as O’Connell notes, it makes little sense to have remotely operated tugs if handlers have to remain close by because they are tethered to an aircraft by their headset communication cables.
Finally, he agrees that future demand for the latest wireless duplex communications systems for use on the ramp might also be spurred by health safety needs as part of any post-pandemic, ‘new normal’ operating environment.
It makes good sense for health reasons to have personalised headsets for each individual handler, and preferably these would be wireless, O’Connell advises: although whether that will happen will depend on numerous factors, not least the financial capability of handlers to invest in new systems.
Bonneuil Sur Marne, France-based Global-Sys offers both wired and wireless systems for multi-directional communications. Its core business is the aviation sector (both civilian and military), where it has been active since it was established in 1997, although it also sells products into the naval and maritime markets too.
The company’s primary wired ramp headset for commercial users is the HEA 371, which offers high-quality audio over a maximum cable length of 12m. The headset comes with a waterproof, wind-protected differential microphone and a push-button-to-talk capability.
Global-Sys’ wireless communication option is full duplex, enabling multi-way communication between up to four parties on the ground, or five including a pilot on a flight deck.
The Airlink 2085 base unit is attached to an aircraft, this enabling encrypted communication with up to four mobile handsets worn by ground handlers. The base unit communicates out to a maximum range of 300m and is powered by easily removable lithium or standard AAA batteries.
Airlink 2085 integrated headsets worn by up teams of to four handlers working around an aircraft are powered by lithium or AA batteries. Although they usually communicate via the base station, direct headset-to-headset communication is also possible for ramp operations such as de-icing.
They employ 1.9GHz DECT technology as opposed to Wi-Fi or Bluetooth communication, which offers a high degree of reliability, Global-Sys believes, as well greater range.
As an alternative to headsets, handlers might choose an Airlink 2085 mobile unit or beltpack, which also enable full duplex communication via a base unit by means of the same DECT technology while using any brand’s wired headset.
For military customers who prefer wireless communication, Global-Sys offers the Airlink 3085 system which, says sales and marketing manager Romain Gareyte, consists of a similarly capable base unit, cordless integrated headsets and mobile unit or beltpack options. It’s much the same system as the Airlink 2085 with slightly different hardware, plus sophisticated features that maximise audio quality in the harshest of operating environments.
Global-Sys’ commercial customers include GSPs, self-handling airlines and airfield operators who undertake some aircraft handling tasks. Increasingly, Gareyte notes, Global-Sys’ customers are looking to opt for wireless communication options. Wired systems are well-established, legacy products that still have a place in the market, he observes, but ramp operators are increasingly attracted to the extra levels of flexibility and safety that wireless systems offer.
The latter’s cost can be an issue, but Global-Sys points out that over the medium- or long-term life of the wireless product, it more than pays for itself through its greater ease of use. Moreover, wireless can be considered a mature technology, well proven for a number of years now in its value for ramp (and hangar-based) operations.
Of course, the pandemic has affected demand for ramp communications systems, but Gareyte points to a dramatic recovery in the market in late autumn last year. Like O’Connell, he is hopeful that the recovery will continue despite the latest challenge posed by the Omicron variant of Covid.