Kiwi ingenuity flies high

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Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it is Supermower – the Airport Express, the world’s fastest, smartest airport grass mower, designed and built in New Zealand.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it is Supermower – the Airport Express, the world’s fastest, smartest airport grass mower, designed and built in New Zealand.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it is Supermower – the Airport Express, the world’s fastest, smartest airport grass mower, designed and built in New Zealand. And it helps keep birds and planes, mutual worst enemies on an airfield, out of each others’ space at Auckland Airport. Jenny Pretorius reports.

A critical element of airplane safety is airport safety. A critical element of airport safety is successfully addressing the issues of bird strike during airplane takeoff and landing.

This requires habitat control including controlling grass length, which is instrumental in keeping bird populations in check on the vast open grasslands surrounding runways across the globe – in Auckland Airport’s instance, 200 hectares.

Auckland Airport faces two specific challenges with respect to controlling grass length. One is the New Zealand climate – its temperate summers cause grass to grow briskly and its long, wet winters result in water-saturated, boggy soil that becomes inaccessable to a commercial grass mower. Adding to the problem is that much of the airport is built on reclaimed land. The other is New Zealand’s huge, robust bird populations including waders, who consider the airport prime real estate.

No aircraft arrives or departs between 1:30am and 4.30am on Monday mornings. This weekly three-hour maintenance window is the only opportunity for staff to work in the red zone, which comprises a runway and the 76m either side of it. The airport’s red zone grasslands add up to 40ha, so the habitat control team has its job cut out for it.

The optimum length of Auckland Airport’s grass is 100mm to 200mm, long enough to deter birds from landing, but short enough not to tempt them with seed or insects attracted by flowers. In previous years grass in some areas grew too long. Once cut, the waste had to be carted away by a second vehicle. The system worked but was laborious. Birds are controlled by various other methods as well and although bird strike was never very high – around three strikes per the airport’s twelve to thirteen thousand aircraft movements per month – the Auckland Airport management team wanted to close the safety loop and proactively decrease bird strike to the lowest level possible.

In July 2013 Auckland Airport and its habitat control partners, Auckland City Parks, gave Fieldmaster from Pukekohe the brief to develop a pioneering grass mower – a lightweight, all-terrain machine capable of cutting grass to a uniform height of 110mm at high speeds, and mulching the cuttings to miniscule debris that would disperse evenly. Fieldmaster, owned by the New Zealand-based investment syndicate Challenge Partners, accessed a research and development project grant of nearly $50,000 from government agency Callaghan Innovation to tackle the project.

A first-of-its-kind product, the Airport Express was a huge success. It took a record 16 months to get it from concept stage to functional mower fulfilling its job description. In August 2014 Fieldmaster officially handed it over to Auckland Airport. The mower can cut in any conditions at a speed of up to 20km/h, has a ground loading of 7psi, the same as a man, and keeps the airside grounds in mint condition. Auckland Airport maintenance services manager Kevin Ingle says birdstrike is now down one per the airport’s twelve to thirteen thousand aircraft movements per month. “We are very pleased with the results,” he says.

Fieldmaster director Paul Ayers says the company is focused on significant growth, using its long-term expertise in agricultural machinery to identify opportunities. “We plan to develop more innovative technology to further our expansion into export markets,” he says.

About 90 percent of bird strike incidents take place near or on airports and the associated costs in damages are extremely high. The Fieldmaster team’s initial target market is airports in New Zealand and Australasia, but Mr Ayers sees significant export potential with respect to other institutions that have large grounds to maintain. Fieldmaster has received numerous enquiries from across the world.

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