Mobile apps, IoT, cyber security, self-service platforms and analytics are all set for widespread deployment, writes Martin Courtney
Airport IT supplier SITA estimates that global airport expenditure on new information and communication technologies will total over US$9bn in 2016, with much of that investment going into passenger processing, security and operations systems. Hardware and software devoted to improving the passenger experience by eliminating queues and minimising disruption and delays are top priorities, with 90% of all airports worldwide planning either major or trial deployments of new mobile apps in particular.
Abhi Chackho is head of commercial IT at Gatwick Airport, which last year came up with an idea for a mobile shared knowledge application after the suggestion topped a poll in its internal IT customer forum, held every two months as a sounding board for potential use cases of new technology.
The Community App, available for Apple IoS and Android devices, has been in production use at the airport for almost a year now and has almost 5,000 registered users, many of them ground handlers.
“The majority of key users are the airline and ground handling guys because they get much more detail about operational status of the flight status, aircraft turnaround status and other ACD milestones to help them with planning,” says Chackho.
The information streams can be easily filtered to create a channel for last-minute gate changes and deliver red or amber alerts for such events, for example – which will allow users to take any required action to minimise delay.
“The ground handlers know how many bags are expected for each flight and how many passengers, and therefore how many staff they will need to handle them,” explains Chackho. “They also know the online performance of the airport broken down by airline and ground handling company.”
Mobile apps are not only being utilised to help airport staff, but also to provide passengers with better, more timely information on their journeys and the airport environment itself. Concessionaire Airmall USA has partnered with travel app Flio to provide passengers at Boston Logan International Airport in Massachusetts with easy access to airport Wi-Fi and flight information, for example, with the initiative partly funded by advertising and promotional offers for retail, dining and other airport amenities.
Elsewhere TAV Information Technologies has added social media support to its TAV Mobile app, which now offers flight information via Facebook and Twitter, again alongside promotions being offered by airport retailers.
Smartphone wayfinding and IoT
Consistent growth in passenger numbers, over 5% per annum, and little sign of any drop-off in that trend, means airports are under pressure to expand and manage their capacity. The Internet of Things (IoT) is one technology expected to help with that, by helping to track and monitor passengers, staff, baggage, equipment and other devices within the airport environment.
Gatwick Airport has been trialling a mobile wayfinding and navigation app using Beacon-based proximity technology, which should launch as a full service next year once a suitable supplier has been selected. According to SITA, 74% of airports plan to trial context-aware and location-based technology in the next five years, with prime locations being security checkpoints, bag drop areas, retail floor space, boarding gates and bag reclaim.
“There is quite an interest in seeing where sensors can be deployed in the airport to both improve the passenger experience and help airlines deliver information,” explains Nigel Pickford, director of market insight and operations at SITA. “That is only possible if the location of the passenger and the distance to the gate is known but to do that effectively, that is a big job. The cost and location of deployment and how to provide access are all considerations that need to be looked at [to properly understand the business case].”
Dublin Airport is currently using Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technology to manage queues and display wait times as passenger numbers grow, having enlisted the help of Lockheed Martin to design and implement the BlipTrack platform developed by BLIP Systems. The software collects data from customers’ smartphones and other Bluetooth/Wi-Fi enabled mobile devices to count passenger numbers and track their progress, simultaneously enabling more efficient allocation of staff to prevent queues building up and feeding back information on likely wait times to passengers.
Bag tracking is hot on the agenda in the aviation industry, particularly in light of IATA Resolution 753 which mandates that members of the International Air Transport Association must maintain accurate inventory of baggage (monitoring its acquisition and delivery) by June 2018.
According to Pickford, this means that airlines must provide data regarding each hand-off of baggage from one stakeholder to another, from the belt to the sorting area or the sorting area to the trolley for example – the sort of detail which is difficult to deliver without having some form of electronic bag tracking and monitoring system. Various technologies are being mooted for electronic bag tracking, including RFID tags – which in the past have been considered too expensive.
Both Delta Airlines and Asia Airfreight are currently looking to equip baggage with RFID tags, for instance. Delta is reported to be investing $50m to equip 1,500 belt loaders at 84 of its busiest airports with RFID readers, backed up by a wider network of 4,600 scanners, 3,800 printers and 600 pier and claim readers to help it pinpoint any missing item’s last known location. The move is part of an early switch to RFID that will help Delta decide if it is feasible to completely replace its barcode system. Delta estimates that whereas RFID signals from embedded chips are picked up by receivers 99.85% of the time, the success rate for manual bar code scanners is only 90%, one reason why bags are often lost.
Asia Airfreight is also using RFID for pre-packed cargo acceptance at Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA), where the tags condense the data entry process to a single level and eliminate the need for manual paper-based processes when recording details such as flight number, weight, contour and destination in the docking area.
If predictions estimating there will be over 50 billion IoT-connected devices online by 2020 come true, the volume of data being created and transmitted by so many sensors, industrial monitors and mobile devices will need careful sifting if it is to offer any meaningful insight to airlines, airports and ground handlers.
Many companies have already used big data analytics to analyse customer buying behaviour, but IoT brings completely new data sets from a much broader range of sources to build an overall picture of system status and historical operational trends.
“The big opportunity that comes with predictive analytics is how we aggregate and analyse multiple sources of data to get better insight into whether any disruption is about to occur,” Pickford considers. “Irregular operations (IROPS) happen every day, some are minor, some are dramatic – adverse weather or technical failures for example – but we are now at a point where computing power is at a scale that could potentially allow various algorithms to map recurring disruptions over time and work out how to mitigate the impact or ensuing chaos.”
Boeing and its AerData and Jeppesen subsidiaries are in the process of migrating their commercial aviation analytics tools to Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform as the company looks to help over 300 airlines, aircraft leasing companies and maintenance suppliers reduce costs and improve operational efficiency using predictive maintenance and flight optimisation data.
Gatwick Airport’s Community App was also designed as a Cloud-hosted SaaS (software-as-a-service) application. It can be accessed by anybody with a valid business email identification, whether Easyjet or Menzies for example, and can be downloaded to personal Android, Windows or iOS mobile smartphones or other devices.
“It’s a multi-tenant SaaS application, meaning it can work for multiple airports,” says Chackho. “The advantage of that is that when airlines move from Gatwick to Edinburgh, for example, they can switch the context between the airports. So the user can see onward travel for airport status related to Edinburgh.”
Cyber security threat
There are signs that the aviation industry is starting to pay closer attention to cyber security as the volume and diversity of malware and attacks continues to grow. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) warned in July that airlines and airports must always be prepared for the worst after it calculated that aviation systems were subject to an average of 1,000 cyber attacks each month. And ground-based networks that upload or download flight-related information to aircraft are widely considered less secure than those deployed onboard.
EASA is to open a new cyber security centre staffed by the Aviation Computer Emergency Response Team (AV-CERT) that will study and monitor past and present malware patterns to help identify security flaws and vulnerabilities. The idea is to develop suitable response strategies able to mitigate the impact of any cyber incident, such as targeted attacks, accidental data leaks, the distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks that affected the system that Polish airline LOT used for issuing flight plans in 2015, or ransomware attacks that see hackers pose as free airport Wi-Fi hotspots to infiltrate passenger laptops and other mobile devices.
The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) embarked on a similar initiative in June 2015, setting up an advisory committee to identify risk areas and co-operate on internal cyber security system design and testing standards. Cyber security was also prioritised at the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) general assembly in September, with greater collaboration between the EASA and FAA being urged.
A good example of the hosted cyber security services currently available to airports and airlines comes from Raytheon, which provides an automated threat intelligence platform backed up by cyber security assessments, digital forensics and incident response virtual security from its operations centre.
“Cyber security is not a waiting game, and organisations without the expertise and tools required to identify and respond to skilled adversaries need to understand that,” urges Jack Harrington, vice president of cyber security and special missions at Raytheon Intelligence, Information and Services. “The old approach waited for technology to flag known threats. In contrast, skilled hunters like those on our team proactively seek emerging threats and stop them before businesses suffer damage.”
Other security providers are now coming to market with similar systems aimed at the aviation industry. Rockwell-Collins launched a new ARINC Cyber Security Operations Center platform in October this year, a threat intelligence service that monitors private networks linking airports and other critical infrastructure to signs of current or imminent cyber attacks.
SITA’s Airport IT Trends Survey noted that cyber security is now second in the overall IT priority list in 2016, up from fifth in 2015, with 50% of airports now recognising it as a high priority for investment (second only to passenger processing). But many organisations still lack the skilled cyber security personnel needed to implement and manage cyber security infrastructure and deal with new threats, and 41% admitted their cyber security plans remain at the development stage.
Reducing security congestion
New technology sits behind improvements in physical security currently being made to airport operations, notably facial recognition software that speeds up border control and provides more accurate records of passenger movements. IT supplier Unisys will integrate NEC’s NeoFace Match facial recognition software into its existing passport control to compare images taken during US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) inspection processes against those on the passenger’s e-passport. Similar technology has been tested at Hartsfield-Jackson International airport in Georgia, with records held in secure data systems for post-departure analysis – although the CBP was keen to stress that no individual holding a valid US passport would have their details retained.
CBP officials have taken things a step further at Washington Dulles International airport in Virginia by accepting Customs and immigrations submissions via its own Mobile Passport App. US and Canadian citizens save profiles securely on their personal smartphones before submitting them electronically on arrival at the airport; they are then quickly processed in designated lanes that do not require them to fill out forms manually.
Market research firm Technavio estimates that the value of the global airport e-gate market will increase by 20% between 2016 and 2020 as multimodal biometric technology, including automated facial recognition and fingerprinting, is increasingly used to beef up security whilst minimising queue congestion. The company believes e-gates will see closer integration with real-time airline arrival and departure information systems to streamline the passenger airport experience further.
Many airports are experimenting with the use of robotics in various roles, both within the terminal and on the ramp. Electronics manufacturer Hitachi and its Building Systems subsidiary are currently trialling a humanoid customer service robot in Terminal 2 at Haneda Airport in Tokyo. The EMIEW3 greets passengers at a dedicated guidance counter in both Japanese and English and displays various types of information about the airport’s shops and facilities using maps and images. The tests are designed to help Hitachi assess EMIEW3’s multi-language interactive speech capabilities and autonomous running functions. The airport also completed tests of Cyberdyne cleaning robots, which now look likely to be introduced permanently in the 24-hour International terminal.
Elsewhere, SITA trialled robot technology developed by BlueBotics at Geneva Airport earlier this year, although it is not yet clear if the pilot scheme will lead to a full commercial deployment. Leo is a fully autonomous, self-propelling baggage robot which helps passengers avoid queuing, allowing them to check in using an embedded touch screen, print their bag tags and transport up to two items of luggage with a maximum weight of 32kg.
Not everybody is convinced that robots or robotics technology can perform useful functions within airport environments just yet however, with the technology still at an early stage of maturity.
Self-service bag drops
The airport IT supplier’s 2016 survey of 9,000 passengers found that most prefer to use self-service technology – whether kiosks, mobile devices, automated gates or other digital platforms – rather than engage in human interaction with airport staff.
Many airlines have installed self-service bag drop technology this year, including an EasyJet facility at London Gatwick’s North Terminal containing 48 kiosks. Passengers have their passports verified against their boarding passes before they place bags onto a weigh scale; the kiosk prints out a tag which is attached by the customer.
Meanwhile, ICM Airport Technics signed a contract to supply self-service bag drop and baggage handling solutions with the Changi Airport Group in Singapore, the latest in a series of deals that also involve Montreal, Milan Malpensa, Munich and Johannesburg. The automated baggage loading cell replaces manual ‘below the wing’ loading operations, which saw staff load bags onto flight containers or baggage carts, by using a robotic arm with a patented and telescopic surface to match the size of the bag.
Navigating the technology maze
The breadth of technology solutions currently available combined with the speed at which news ones are constantly being developed inevitably presents challenges for airports, airlines and ground handling companies looking to exploit them, either to improve operational processes or to open up new revenue streams through IT service innovation.
“The difficulty is in identifying which one will gives us the best benefit with the least amount of investment, where if we think hard we can see a particular technology doing a specific job for us,” says Chackho. “In many cases these are not groundbreaking but take a different perspective on an existing technology to give us a much better result.”
Gatwick Airport’s IT Forum makes those decisions much easier to make, with invitations extended to a wide variety of organisations and businesses operating at the airport, from ground handlers to retailers, hoteliers and the police. Discussions cover everything from general concerns about mobile or WiFi network coverage to additional data streams that those businesses would like to see help make their business more efficient, or whether robotics makes sense for an airport or not.
“We invite leading-edge technology companies to present and see what is coming around the corner,” adds Chackho. “It [the Forum] comes up with around 10-15 ideas per year and is proving to be quite a useful channel. It helps make sure we do not bet on the wrong [technology] horse.”