Much has been cited about the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) and its impact on improving the passenger experience. This article shows that there is huge scope for productivity improvements, cost savings and capacity enhancements at airports through wide-spread IoT deployment. We start with some background on IoT in general and then focus on airports.
The world of IoT
There is much discussion about a world of connected machines. This is sometimes called machine-to-machine (M2M) or the Internet of Things. Most agree that there is huge potential in connecting machines, but it is a vast and diverse marketplace and there is much confusion as to what it entails and how it will materialise.
A first step is to differentiate diverse areas of the marketplace. One key differentiator is whether the system is really just a remote control for a machine (eg setting the home heating system from a smartphone when away from the home) or whether it is divorced from any person and is a machine reporting on status (eg a dustbin notifying a database it is full). The remote control market is typically handled through cellular, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi and is already established and growing quickly as evidenced by demonstrations at key consumer and trade conferences such as the Mobile World Congress.
Wide-area, machine-oriented solutions form the bulk of the interesting new areas. These are machines sending readings to a central database or computer that can take action – such as sending an electricity bill or scheduling a garbage truck. So it is not really “machine to machine” but rather sensor to database. This may seem pedantic use of semantics but there is an important point here that there is little reason for one “machine” – by which we generally mean a device such as a smart meter – to talk directly to another. Equally it is not really an Internet of Things. The Internet implies an interconnected network where my computer can access information on your computer. Instead, typically, only the “owner” of the machine, such as the electricity company, will be able to access its readings and communicate with the device. It is more like the “Intranet of Things” where connectivity is restricted to self-contained groups rather than the “Internet”.
So a connected machine in this sense is a device that communicates over a wide area network to its owner’s computer system. This enables the computer to take appropriate action such as re-planning schedules. Boring, but incredibly valuable.
The ideal ground handling system
Ground handling is critically important to the airline industry but it also has to run at the lowest possible cost. The ideal system would understand everything that needed to be at the ramp for the aircraft to arrive and depart and the times that it would need to arrive there. The implementation of A-CDM across some airports, the provision of well-structured interfaces between an airport’s AODB and the ground-handlers RMS will assist in the timely delivery of the correct equipment and people at the right stand at the right time. As airports become more complex and airlines become more demanding, there is always room for improvement – reviewing physical operational practices is one area, implementing technology is another.
Based on real-time information as to the aircraft arrival, (revised) stand / gate location, additional ramp operation requirements and GSE demands, being fully informed on the location of assets and people, understanding the up-to-date journey time to reach the assigned stand, responding to last minute requests (such as de-icing or additional bussing) a better informed and integrated system would ensure that the correct assets were en-route and available at the optimal time. Tugs/tractors and towbars, buses, stairs, baggage carts, cargo dollies, ULD’s, GPU’s and even staff – all trackable and therefore managed effectively.
Airport operators or authorities are also realising the benefits of telematics data and airside activities. Security, GSE parking, emissions and traffic studies are all key areas that can be better managed and understood with the provision of IoT data.
There are challenges in implementing such solutions. The installation of telematics and RFID devices will differ across the wide range of ground handling equipment and vehicles. These require radio solutions that enable multi-year battery life. The rules to determine specific actions, based on information provided, will need configuring across resource planning and maintenance applications.
First step – providing wireless communications
An IoT system comprises three elements:
a. A sensor to monitor some state (eg location).
b. Wireless connectivity to send the information from the sensor.
c. A central IT system that accepts the information, processes it and acts accordingly.
The largest problem to date has been the wireless connectivity. IoT devices typically need wireless systems with 10 year battery life, cost of a few pounds to install and operate and excellent connectivity. However, they do not need high data rates, handover or even, in some cases, two-way communications. A number of radio solutions to meet these requirements have been developed and are now available from suppliers such as Sigfox (represented in the UK by Arqiva), Semtech/LoRa and NWave/Weightless.
Quite who will drive airport IoT deployments is not entirely clear. With different systems deployed by some airlines, some airport companies and by the airport owners in the provision of voice and data services, a lack of clarity creates the need for leadership and clear strategy from the airports themselves.
So what is specifically required? It is the deployment of a few base stations around the airport, including basement areas. Typically, the same sites that are used for a private voice radio system today will be suitable as will the masts, so all that is needed is to install additional equipment. This is often only the size of a home router and the antenna will also be relatively small and light. It may be possible to use the same backhaul connectivity that already exists, multiplexing the IoT traffic onto the link. These base stations are often less than £5,000 each so the total installation costs might be less than £50,000 depending on the work needed.
Second step: Agreeing on standards for the data
Standardisation is a key component to simpler integration of data into multiple systems. ICT standards are a key enabler to its inherent success. Aviation is no different in adding its own layer of ‘standards’– from Type B messaging (another debate) to AIDX, Baggage XML, CUPPS – the list goes on. For every process there will be a standard. IATA are attempting to ‘consolidate’ these standards with their Simplifying the Business and Airline Industry Data Model’s (amongst others). So why do we have standards? IATA themselves have put it quite succinctly:
• Increased consistency of definitions and format: Enforcing strong methodology ensures that all data is modelled according to the same rules. Concentrating all industry data definitions in one repository accessible to all promotes re-use and increases the consistency of resulting standards.
• Faster development of new standards: Re-using existing industry definitions, data and process models speeds up the development of new standards as well as modifications of existing standards.
• Streamlined deployment of new standards: Standards developed using the same methodology and the same data repository are consistent. Users need to learn only once and then apply the same knowledge in multiple deployments.
• Breaking down of silos: Integrated data model gives visibility across business areas and the possibility of re-use motivates the users to collaborate and maintain common views and structure across business areas.
Certain airport authorities already have within their Ground Operators Licence the requirement to provide specific telematics data for all airside vehicles and GSE plant. This model shall be further developed across the industry. What is the rationale behind this edict?
• Safety (security) – data collection for airside notices / incidents (AIN/AON), runway incursions
• Space utilisation – recognition of GSE plant being utilised (and by whom) and subsequent issues regarding capacity / parking / storage. Understanding this would enable the airport authority to better manage expensive airside real-estate.
• Traffic studies – what are the popular airside routes? Where is more traffic management required?
• Emissions. The ability to better report on actual traffic, vehicle and fuel type. Following the analysis of this data, more reasoned arguments for switching fuel types may be demonstrated. In association with the traffic studies, better routing options may also be put forward to reduce emissions.
Step three: Acting on the data
What about when things don’t go to plan? A last minute change in the schedule, airside incidents, equipment failures. To react to these incidents, you need correct and up-to-date information about where your equipment is and what state it is in (noting there is a link here with asset maintenance mentioned later).
With the correct real-time data available in a consistent format, managing incidents can become much less stressful and communication to other stakeholders is quicker and more precise.
Step four: Preventing asset failure
Asset life: Procure, register, define depreciation model, maintain, renew / dispose. Let’s look at the maintain triangle…Just sit back and wait for the maintenance cycle to come around and book it into the workshop. But when is the right time? When does that cycle come around? Basic calendar and usage planning has its place – noting that usage / cyclical planning is only as good as the data received. Telematics will provide more accurate data as to the (ab)use of equipment, low levels of fluids – even tyre pressures. Thereby enabling better scheduling of maintenance and resource planning
This takes us into the realm of predictive maintenance and optimised Asset Management. Tangible results of integrated asset management (and the systems therein – ref ISO 55001) are increasingly being proven. Easy to say, but it can be a complicated and timely exercise and differing assets will require the appropriate level of system to manage it. Managing data from telematics is part of the equation.
Step five: Learning from experience
As data on operations is collected we can optimise use of assets, routes driven, shift patterns and much more; as well as learning from situations where remedial action was needed. To do this we need to get the data into a single database where analytics can be performed. But there are 100’s of vehicles producing multiple messages of varying content over many days. This equates to a lot of data to be managed. Where will it reside and for how long should you keep the raw data. Analysis will be required as to the physical (disk) space required. Over time this will equate to many terabytes of data. That may not sound much in today’s world of 2TB laptops – but it still needs managing as it grows.
Once we have the data, what is the right thing to do with it? The use of information of message brokers (SOA – Service Oriented Architecture) is the norm for integrated systems. The implementation of a standard message protocol as previously stated is a key-enabler in the effectiveness and deployment ease of this technology.
Once the basic data component has been received, it may go straight to a receiving application for ‘rules-based’ interpretation and decision making. Many systems will have a rules-based engine that ‘simply’ requires populating – do not underestimate the effort required to complete this task. You may also (read should) wish to perform some further analysis on this data for further rules based decisions / reporting / dash-boarding. We now approach the realms of business intelligence, on-line analytical processing (OLAP), Big Data, data mining etcetera and the software tools to manage it.
There is much hype around the IoT – and for good reason. It promises to transform our world and airports are well placed to be some of the first beneficiaries. A well designed IoT solution could both dramatically reduce delays caused by logistics failures and improve productivity and gate throughput. Implementation requires multiple skillsets from radio planning through standards development to IT implementation. But with the right team assembled timescales and costs can be low and rewards very high.
About the Authors
Daryl and William work for Affini, a company providing consultancy, project management and managed services predominantly in the aviation sector. Affini have a presence in most UK airports and have previously managed projects such as the separation of UK airports from BAA, the introduction of new baggage handling systems at Heathrow and the provision of radio services across multiple major airports.
Daryl Spires is a Managing Consultant in the Aviation Practice for Affini. He has extensive international experience in the design and delivery of ICT – particularly within the aviation sector.
William Webb is Head of IoT Consulting at Affini. He was one of the founding directors of Neul, a company developing machine-to-machine technologies and networks, which was formed at the start of 2011 and subsequently sold to Huawei. Prior to this William was a Director at Ofcom where he managed a team providing technical advice and performing research. He has worked for a range of communications consultancies and spent three years providing strategic management across Motorola’s entire communications portfolio, based in Chicago. He was IET President 2014-2015