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AV and IT Meet at JFK Airport

You've heard it all before: AV and information technology have come to a head. Nowhere is this more apparent, perhaps, than in efforts to move video content over Cat-5 cabling, which is often the economical choice. Many times it's already in place before an integrator begins work on a project.

CHALLENGE: Install a video network that can distribute important information yet be easy to service and maintain.

SOLUTION: Integrate off-the-shelf information technology with AV distribution systems.

You've heard it all before: AV and information technology have come to a head. Nowhere is this more apparent, perhaps, than in efforts to move video content over Cat-5 cabling, which is often the economical choice. Many times it's already in place before an integrator begins work on a project. And sometimes, the project is a decidedly IT-heavy install–one in which an AV pro must think like an IT integrator if he wants to start chipping away at the business opportunities.

JFK International Airport has been undergoing several technology renovations. In one terminal, British Airways undertook multimedia distribution.

JFK International Airport has been undergoing several technology renovations. In one terminal, British Airways undertook multimedia distribution.

Credit: Courtesy The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey

Several years ago, Chet Doughty, project leader for British Airways at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, initiated such an install. His task: Upgrade the old Terminal 7 Flight Information Display System (FIDS) with equipment that would support visual communication and be easy to access and maintain. And do it without disrupting service to airline customers in one of the busiest airports in the world.

To that end, Doughty called on a colleague he'd worked with in the past–technology consultant Uwe Aufsfeld of East Meadow, N.Y.-based Bedford Computer Consulting Corp.–to install the IT-heavy portion of a generously budgeted project.

After a lengthy period of collaboration and planning, installation of JFK's new FIDS began fall 2007. And it was as much about organization as it was about technology.

"One of my goals was to bring all the electronics into a common room," says Doughty. "I was looking to make a very simple installation for future maintenance."

The team renovated an old storage room–tearing down walls and adding electricity and air conditioning–to contain most of the equipment within two rack rooms so technicians wouldn't have to go out into the field for every repair. In fact, the project required two concentration points of equipment near the gate areas in order to support the eight other airlines the terminal also handles. Fiber-optic cabling ties the two rooms together.

With ease-of-maintenance and equipment longevity being primary goals, Doughty and Aufsfeld designed the project using mostly off-the-shelf equipment, from computer components to mass storage. "The previous system was all proprietary, so there were problems getting parts when they were failing," says Aufsfeld. "That makes a big difference in the long run. This way if something fails, then it's easy to replace."

The FIDS runs on two Unix servers loaded with the UltraFIDS flight information application from Manchester, England-based Ultra Electronics Airport Systems. In a unique twist, Aufsfeld and Doughty went with nearly 100 Dell OptiPlex computers to push the content to the various end-points throughout the terminal, some of which served several displays. 

 

From the equipment rooms, content is routed to 175 NEC MultiSync LCD4020 40-inch LCDs monitors, which display varying static or multimedia data, depending on the screens' function, including flight information; gate and flight numbers; check-in and baggage claim instructions; and, on screens hung prominently above security check points, official Transportation Security Administration videos detailing regulations about screening and carry-ons.

The team specifically chose LCD displays to replace previously installed plasma monitors. "A lot of what is up on the TVs is quite static at times, so plasmas would burn in," says Doughty. "We got LCDs, which can put up with a little bit more."

The previous information system also incorporated projector technology, but the projectors, too, were replaced by LCDs because regularly replacing lamps and filters had proved too costly and inconvenient for the terminal's support staff.

Video Over Cat-5

But the driving force behind the new streaming video information system is its Cat-5-based signal distribution hub. And this is where the prominently IT install took on its AV mission. Aufsfeld brought in an AMX Endeleo multiformat media distribution system, a technology the manufacturer acquired in 2006. The system comprises a collection of UDM-1604 multiformat AV switchers and various Endeleo UDM-RX01 and UDM-RX02 receivers. The combined system distributes the FIDS AV content over Cat-5 cabling, which was run anew from the main computer rack room to the terminal displays.

Among Terminal 7's new network of 175 video displays are screens that run standard clips from the Transportation Security Administration.

Among Terminal 7's new network of 175 video displays are screens that run standard clips from the Transportation Security Administration.

Credit: UWE Aufsfeld, Bedford Computer Consulting Corp.

Doughty says the current configuration is less expensive than the previous setup, which ran over coaxial cables. "What we liked about AMX is their hub can drive up to 16 TVs, as opposed to some other companies that make 2:1 ratios," he says.

"It's very flexible, which helps a lot," adds Aufsfeld. "AMX was very helpful in getting us started with it. They sent a technician out and ran us through the system. I learned quite a lot about video distribution."

Aufsfeld knew eventually he'd learn how the system handled sound, too. British Airways was concerned that audio would make the check-in area too noisy, but planned to include it with televisions airing CNN in the arrivals area.

"The [system] actually makes it very easy to pass the sound through, because you have everything going over one Cat-5 cable," he explains.

Down to Business

Getting the actual work done proved the biggest challenge. Because the airport's operating hours are approximately 5:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., Doughty, Aufsfeld, and their team did most of the installation at night. "[British Airways] didn't want us to work while the passengers were running around, so we had to do a lot of working around the customers' schedule," says Aufsfeld.

Doughty and Aufsfeld expected and accounted for this type of schedule, but they didn't account for the level of security that persistently delayed progress. "Because the airport has a lot of security–as much as we accounted for it–sometimes we didn't get permission from the customs officials to [get] into the customs hall where we wanted to mount TVs on a certain evening," Doughty says.

Security wasn't the only unforeseen delay. "The electrician was running the cables, and I couldn't do any connecting until the cables were run," recalls Aufsfeld. "We had another contractor installing the screens themselves, so we had to wait for them before we could actually hook up and light up the screens."

By November 2008, though, all the coordination paid off. Even as Doughty and Aufsfeld wrapped up the project review, they appeared justified in the decisions they made. According to Doughty, the company's IT department was already seeing savings in technology maintenance.

"Now that all the electronics or intelligence is in one area, if something fails, the maintenance guys don't have to go out to the screens, go up on the ladder, pull the screen down, pull the PCs down," says Aufsfeld.

And the team credits its choice to shun certain proprietary equipment for the project's financial success. "A lot of people ask why we use 100 PCs to drive screens when we could use blade servers, but that makes it unique again," Doughty points out. "This way, if a PC that's driving a TV fails, you just go get another PC and put the [software] image on it and off you go again."



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