Technology & Robotics

How ‘smart’ can an airport be?

‘Smart airport’ is one of the most common buzz phrases in the industry. Before determining if smart airports are achievable, a key task is to define what the term means and to establish how an airport can make the journey. Airport operational experts define ‘smart’ differently than technology providers or airport designers. Furthermore, while technological advancements are changing and challenging traditional design and operational concepts, the tangible benefits of these advancements for a smart airport and its customers are often more difficult to ascertain.

So, what makes an airport smart? Is it the business’s ability to maximise its assets to create as much return on investment as possible, or is it the technology deployed across the operation and customer-facing environment to enhance the experience?

The answer is both, simply because an airport is as smart as the technology in use permits. There’s no doubt that the highly regularised aviation and airport environment faces ever changing requirements driven by regular enhancements in security, by introducing strategies to increase the revenue streams, by optimising airport capital expenditures and investments, and by rigorous control of costs. Under that remit, a smart airport includes faster, safer, standardised processes, which in turn require seamless and very fast wireless communication means (5G, WiFi).

Moreover, the globalisation of the airline industry forces arriving and departing airports to predict and react to sudden events in advance – a change in the flight schedule or delays in the air traffic at the departing airport affect availability of the stands, gates and ground equipment. Airports are now, with advanced collaborative decision-making expert systems, able to predict and react to such changes. Highly advanced algorithms and artificial intelligence are used for such processes. In regard to security and safety, technologies such as body scanners, CT scanners and smart gates now offer passengers a fast, reliable, secure and enjoyable journey.

Finally, in the highly competitive aviation market where airports are a few hundred kilometres apart and carriers select their landing location based on cost and passenger experience, airports tend to diversify their income streams with non-aeronautical revenues, and new emerging services are now possible with the use of technology.

Applications are now providing indoor navigation with points of interests and pre-booked shopping capabilities. Advanced behaviour analysis algorithms are now able to correlate retail sales with flight destinations. Airports are now cooperating with home carriers and duty-free companies to make the passenger journey as relaxed and enjoyable as possible, and generate new sales channels.

Airport designers and construction consultants are now taking into consideration the available technology, the new operational trends, and their clients’ need to maximise profits. New design includes de-facto communication technologies and smart applications for operation, security and enhanced passenger experience.

Moreover, the use of BIM (Building Information Modelling) technology during the design and implementation phases allows accurate as-built information through a single point of truth. Once the facility is commissioned and tested, the BIM model is linked with a facility maintenance system and 3D navigation allows easier access to asset information.

Digitising key operational processes to deliver a streamlined, seamless, enriching route from kerb to aircraft, and vice versa, for the airport passenger is paramount, but this undertaking must be achieved at the right cost and within the correct parameters. Advancements in check-in, single-token travel, radio frequency identification (RFID), beacon technology, and baggage drop-off and retrieval are now very robust, have been introduced in some form at most modern airports, and can enable airports to manage more passengers more quickly, increasing operational efficiencies while also potentially postponing the need to invest in and build new facilities to manage passenger growth.

This ensures that the business case for this type of implementation can be relatively straightforward and quickly deliver a high return on investment. So it’s not surprising that most key solution and system providers within the aviation industry focus on these types of deliverable. Their interest and focus are not so clear, however, regarding the overall strategy for integration, automation and data use within the airport environment – in other words, what it takes to deliver a truly smart airport.

Given the projected technology trends within airports, there has never been a better time for airport authorities to determine the right strategy when they decide to upgrade or build new facilities, creating a truly Smart environment that not only understands, predicts and facilitates customer needs, but maximises the overall return on investment.

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