Blockchain, analytics, biometric scanning and the Internet of Things are demonstrating the art of the possible in the aviation industry, writes Martin Courtney
The aviation industry has much to gain from the innovative use of information technology (IT), and airlines, airports and ground handling companies are putting considerable time and money into identifying and deploying the hardware and software best able to deliver new services whilst reducing operational costs and improving the passenger experience.
A study of 100 US airports conducted by Airports Council International – North America (ACI-NA) found that airports in the USA will need to spend US$100 billion upgrading current infrastructure over the next five years, for example. Just over half of that investment is earmarked for terminal projects, with another 25% for landside requirements and 21% airside improvements.
Airports everywhere expect to follow similar IT upgrade and development initiatives as they expand to cope with rising passenger numbers.
Colin Mair is head of information and trials of new apps and technology at Heathrow airport. Speaking to AGS at the IoT Expo conference in London earlier this year, he outlined a number of IT projects currently in the trial or planning stage.
“Heathrow is essentially a small city with its own roads, fire station and even a morgue, but the most interesting part for the passenger is the terminal and that is where we focus on improving the experience. Whether it is the surfaces in the building or environment, sensorising the security cages and seating areas, or helping people make decisions about where to go, we are finding ways to source those capabilities.”
IOT DRIVING OPERATIONAL IMPROVEMENT
The innovation team at Heathrow has been working on a new Internet of Things (IoT) based system designed to address the perennial problem of aircraft noise generated on the stand, which is subject to specific protocols in terms of when planes should be turned off and attached to fixed ground power.
“Understanding how aircraft use the space outside the airport building is quite interesting to us both from a health and safety point of view and for auditing against compliance with [noise] regulations,” says Mair.
Heathrow worked with systems integrator Fujitsu to develop a solution which uses an array of directional microphones attached to a couple of low-cost Raspberry Pi devices running a machine learning application which performs a spectral analysis of the sound being generated by the aircraft.
By comparing that data against previous information, it is possible to accurately identify the type of aircraft, the manufacturer of the engines, and when and for how long each of the engines or auxiliary power units (APUs) was running.
“By feeding that information back into the Fujitsu IoT platform, we could mash it up with some other data [eg weather conditions, temperature, humidity] to see if there might be a reason why the aircraft was running additional engines – was it too hot or too cold for example – and we got some good status information on ground power availability,” Mair explains. “Then you start to get useful insight as to why the aircraft might be behaving in that way which we can feed back to the airlines to determine any impact on the flight schedule.”
Other organisations are supplementing their analytics projects with machine learning technology to lead more informed, real-time decision making. Machine learning analyses data to reproduce known patterns and knowledge and applies that knowledge to other data before using the results to produce an automated action without requiring human interaction.
NASA and American Airlines are collaborating on the development and field testing of a decision support tool called Spot and Runway Departure Advisor (SARDA) that uses machine learning techniques to help airport ramp controllers to predict taxi times, make gate pushback decisions and improve the overall efficiency of real-time airport operations, for example.
Machine learning can deliver new models for digital advertising too. Amadeus is currently exploring the use of predictive analytics to sift through large data sets to get an indication of how likely air travellers are to purchase something based on the marketing they see, either in the airport or on a travel agent website. Those algorithms can then be used to automatically buy digital ad slots in real time to maximise lead generation and revenue.
Similar techniques can be used to predict airline delays, using historical data to detect patterns then applying it to current data such as weather conditions, departure times or maintenance schedules to come up with an accurate forecast which can be used to streamline ground operations.
BAGGAGE SYSTEM UPGRADES
Several airports, airlines and baggage handling companies are currently looking at new baggage handling systems in readiness for IATA’s Resolution 753, compliance with which will become compulsory in June 2018. The resolution is designed to minimise the number of lost or misrouted items of baggage. Whilst it states that airlines must bear ultimate responsibility for ensuring that each bag is delivered to the correct passenger, those airlines will have to work closely with the airports and baggage handling companies to implement any necessary changes to current systems.
Resolution 753 requires that all IATA members maintain an accurate inventory of baggage by closely monitoring its acquisition and delivery, though it does not mandate which particular bag tracking technology must be used. Many bag tracking platforms have been updated to support compliance, including Zafire’s FirstBag baggage management and reconciliation application. FirstBag includes a mobile app for baggage handlers to use on any device alongside push alerts, message gateways supporting the exchange of baggage information with other airlines and systems, automated re-flighting options and a passenger mobile app.
Heathrow, too, is about to run a trial of a new baggage tracking system that focuses primarily on improving the passenger experience. A common complaint at the airport comes from travellers at the baggage carousel, who are often annoyed that they can never be certain their luggage will turn up until they see it at the belt.
“We looked back at how baggage is processed throughout the system and there is loads of tracking and scanning [via RFID and barcodes] as it goes onto the belt, but we just don’t tell anybody about it,” observes Mair. “So if we can mash that information up with some additional flight and passenger information and make it available through an API maybe that would be interesting for people to know.”
The pilot ‘Where’s My Bag’ system will initially be made available on a kiosk (passengers just scan their boarding card) until Heathrow and the airlines can work out a way to deliver the same data via some form of mobile app. It will provide updates on whether the bag made it onto the flight, has arrived at the airport or is already on the carousel. It is a prime example of where multiple sensors and data sets already in the airport environment can be extracted from proprietary or siloed systems to improve the passenger experience. But the difficulty remains in joining the information together, making it easy for travellers to access it – and, ultimately, finding which aviation stakeholder will fund it.
“The second challenge is finding the person who gets that value [other than the passenger] and who is willing to pay for it,” as Mair puts it. “Unless we can prove that it reduces the number of times somebody actually goes to the baggage desk with an inquiry, it is really just about the passenger experience, and that is hard to put a number on.”
BIOMETRICS AND BLOCKCHAIN
The use of biometric security technology to reduce airport queues is also accelerating, with Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport the latest to trial facial recognition in partnership with Dutch airline KLM. Passengers will be able to identify themselves for boarding using only their faces, though they must first register their details using passports and paper boarding documents at a desk in the waiting area, which KLM hopes will reduce queuing times when it comes to getting on the aircraft itself.
SITA, too, is beginning to roll out its Smart Path platform, trialled at Doha airport, that uses facial scans at the first touch point to enable travellers to move through the airport and board a plane using only their face for verification at each step.
Elsewhere, Air New Zealand has installed the last of its new biometric technology-enabled self-service bag drops at Auckland airport – again requiring passengers to self-scan their passport and boarding pass along with an image of their face before placing their bag onto the belt to be weighed before it is automatically deposited into the baggage handling system. The airline hopes the 13 machines will significantly streamline the check-in process whilst simultaneously reducing its own staffing costs.
The Schiphol–KLM facial recognition trial will see passenger details automatically deleted to ensure compliance with data privacy regulations, a complex issue given the myriad national and international laws which control how airlines, airports and ground handling companies store, share and manage passenger data during the identification and verification process. One possible solution is blockchain, currently being trialled by SITA Lab. Working with digital identity card specialist ShoCard, it has come up with system that creates a ‘token’ on a mobile phone within which is stored biometric and other personal information. Travellers scan their face and device as a means to verify their identity wherever they go, with blockchain providing a means of sharing the information only with those who need to know and preventing access from other stakeholders in the chain.
The information stays with the passenger rather than being stored elsewhere and safeguarding it is important in order to comply with various data protection regulations to which both passengers and data hosting and processing companies are subject in multiple countries of the world. Also, once private details are recorded in a block it is very difficult to amend them, providing additional protection against fraud. SITA is looking at whether the system can be successfully applied to self-service security and boarding processes, as well as landing cards and border control.
While blockchain offers significant potential, it remains in the early stages of its development and new industry standards for supported hardware are likely to be needed to support secure passenger identification in airports using multiple scanning technologies.
While the advantages that clever use of new IT can provide to the aviation industry are widely appreciated, stakeholders often do not yet know what form those solutions will take. Many are now establishing innovation centres designed to identify interesting application use cases, suitable technology platforms and the suppliers best able to bring those platforms into commercial reality.
One is aircraft maker Embraer, currently setting up a new Global Business Center in its Melbourne, Florida facility dedicated to exploring multiple technologies. The scheme will involve close collaboration with silicon start-ups, investors, academic institutions and big technology corporations as Embraer identifies where the evolution and adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) robotics, virtual reality and autonomous vehicles can deliver operational benefits to passenger and cargo transportation.
The International Airlines Group (IAG – parent company of British Airways, Iberia, Vueling and Aer Lingus) embarked on a similar initiative late last year. Its Hangar 51 venture aims to nurture tech start-ups able to develop new hardware, software and services which can help digitise airport and business processes, make better use of data to increase business and improve the passenger experience by promoting greater customer satisfaction.
The 10-week tech accelerator programme began in early January and sees four finalists work alongside IAG in London to test their ideas in a commercial setting. Those taking part include VChain Tech, which uses blockchain secure transaction technology to build a Digital Identity software as a service (SaaS) platform that can help airlines share data safely and securely when passengers take connecting flights. Warwick Analytics is a team of expert data scientists who produce automated predictive analytics software, and Resolver is an independent online resolution service designed to help consumers raise issues and assist aviation stakeholders to be more effective at resolving them. The final entrant is Esplorio, a mobile app that provides a simple way to record and share journey details, ensuring that travellers never forget their amazing experiences and adventures.
Elsewhere, consultancy company Deloitte is creating a new UK-based Aviation Technology team tasked with identifying new hardware, software and service platforms to help the aviation industry address its current challenges, headed up by a management team with a wealth of experience at Lockheed Martin, Leidos and Amor Group.