Looking to the Future

Looking to the Future

New Tool Brings Airspace Down to Earth

By Robert Crain, AICP, Burns & McDonnell, and Ed Young, Kansas Department of Transportation

U.S. airspace is a complex network of imaginary 3D surfaces. The surfaces can be triangles, trapezoids, conical areas, or any shape imaginable. The areas protected are equally complex, including airports, navigational aids, instrument approaches, military training routes, special use areas and more.

Explaining the configuration of airspace in public meetings requires the combined skill set of a high school geometry teacher and a rocket scientist. The mere mention of 3D imaginary surfaces results in an immediate glazing over of eyes.

But Airspace Is Important

Protection of the airport's infrastructure requires local government action. Local airport boards, city councils and county commissions must adopt local regulations regarding the protection of their airport. While the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) evaluates all structures, its ability to restrict the placement of a structure is limited. A local understanding of airspace is critical.

In 2009, 2,000 airspace cases were determined in Kansas alone. In 2010, there were 2,000 cases before October. The increase in case numbers left Kansas airports vulnerable to determinations that might adversely impact instrument approaches, airport expansions and general airport utility. The lack of information and complexity of airspace resulted in 20 percent of the airspace cases receiving a determination of a "presumed significant hazard." Even wind farm developers lacked sufficient information to avoid proposing structures in locations that potentially conflicted with airports.

In the course of its evaluations, the FAA would circularize presumed hazard cases and request comments. Frequently, the comments sent by the state and the airport would be discarded as irrelevant. In many cases, the FAA would simply determine that there was no effect without asking for comment. Even in communities with local regulations, the community could not independently evaluate the FAA's determination of no significant hazard since many of the resources available to them were useless in evaluating a potential structure. This is the value of the KAAT.

From Imaginary to Real

Kansas was the first state to create an airspace tool for public use, the Kansas Airspace Awareness Tool (KAAT). The tool visually depicts airspace, converting the imaginary surfaces into a visual layer in Google Earth. Developers can insert structures using precise coordinates and elevations, or they can identify a site on the map to conduct a preliminary analysis.

More importantly, local communities can use the tool to protect their airports. Much of the state of Kansas is dependent on air ambulance for medical evacuation. Airspace obstructions can reduce the available runway length which reduces the airport capacity. This can impact important users, such as air ambulances, from accessing a community in a time of need. The FAA's Notice of Proposed Construction is still required, but the local community can use the tool to explain the adoption of airspace regulation and justify a determination under local regulations.

Burns & McDonnell helped KDOT turn a vision into reality.

The KAAT went from concept to reality in less than eight months by utilizing unorthodox testing procedures and innovative outreach and training. The tool is already proving its value for KDOT. The agency has already challenged airspace conflicts using the tool's output. The KAAT allows Kansas to be a credible participant in the airspace discussion. Ultimately, it helps KDOT protect the millions of dollars in infrastructure and planning in place at Kansas airports.

Burns & McDonnell used Google Earth because it enabled the team to "stand up" the state of Kansas airspace and airway system for the KAAT. With Google Earth as the platform, the viewer can see the airport and its associated airspace in 3D, creating a real-time visual representation of the existing landscape.

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