Airports need to get smarter, not just bigger

ALE’s Kelly Allen looks at the importance of more intelligent airports in today’s civil aviation market.

Airports are a massive part of the economy and a key player in regional…


ALE’s Kelly Allen looks at the importance of more intelligent airports in today’s civil aviation market.

Airports are a massive part of the economy and a key player in regional growth and development. They bring many different operators and interest groups together — from airlines, ground handlers and air traffic management to consumers, retailers and, of course, regulators. Among these groups, there are lots of stakeholders with different perspectives, functions and goals. Airports must not just get bigger, they must better utilise their constraints, such as capacity, to get smarter and examine the infrastructure needed to support this new breed of ‘intelligent airport’.

Civil aviation is booming and airports are under constant scrutiny to maintain or improve safety levels as passenger numbers continue to grow and the number of routes and flights increase. In order to improve profitability and because of increased market pressures, airports are being driven towards operational efficiency and cost reductions. But capacity constraints due to lack of space mean it is new technologies which are starting to introduce new efficiencies.

The Internet of Things (IoT), automation, big data, robots, AI and virtual reality are becoming part of the civil aviation ecosystem, along with integrated data collection and better real-time communications channels. To make the most of these technologies, airports need to put in place processes that simplify and speed up collaboration within aviation communities.

Managing a complex ecosystem

In both operational and customer-facing roles, the potential for IoT-enabled connected assets to streamline processes cannot be understated. Real-time visibility into the condition of assets or location-based services and beacons for way-finding and asset tracking. Digital marketing and signage, live information-sharing, remote sensors for monitoring runway or environmental conditions, IP cameras linking to facial recognition software or enabling whole digital control towers. Baggage handling, passenger tracking and self check-in – it’s everywhere.

It’s a near impossible task to manage all these types of technology if they are rooted to individual subsystems which all need their own management and maintenance. No matter what digital tools, platforms or systems airports choose to adopt, they will never reach their full potential without the right network or communication building blocks. Further to this, ineffective implementation will increase the potential for these new devices to place a strain on network resources, introduce new vulnerabilities and affect traveller experience.

Yes, aviation industry players need to align, but airports in particular need to evolve towards cost-efficient IP-based solutions for most systems. This will immediately enable better connectivity between people, processes and smart ‘things’ – and also simplify IT management. This is where the connected airport comes in.

Digital security – managing IoT a top priority

Whether its IP security cameras, heating, ventilation and air condition (HVAC) systems or information boards, running all processes on a single network infrastructure is more cost-effective to manage and maintain and offers much greater visibility on an enterprise-wide scale. But there are dangers to poorly secured deployments and any compromised device can be a possible backdoor into the network. As more fixed and mobile devices connect to the network edge, it becomes increasingly important that these IoT devices are properly contained.

With network virtualisation techniques, it is possible to create virtual isolated environments on a single infrastructure and make IoT more manageable. This enables different teams or departments to maintain their own IoT network deployments. Virtual segmentation on the network can create ‘IoT containers’ to group together, manage and secure devices and users, and in the event of a breach, can stop threats moving east-to-west across the network.

IoT containment also makes it possible for the different departments to enforce their own quality of service (QoS) policies on the network to optimise their own operational processes. In each virtual IoT container it is possible to see and manage all the traffic and users, prioritise devices and applications, reserve or limit bandwidth, blacklist devices or monitor for suspicious traffic patterns. QoS policy enforcement can ensure that critical operational processes or network assets can always get the network resources they need to function properly.

Providing stakeholder cooperation and collaboration

Enterprises are shifting towards connected platforms, where people, processes and ‘things’ can connect and collaborate, airports included. The complicated community of stakeholders – airport operators, airlines, ground handlers, passengers, authorities and regulators – can all benefit from removing the barriers to information flow.

Airports can manage passenger movement, optimise operations and implement better emergency communications. Airlines can provide a hassle-free customer experience by relying on infrastructure such as beacons for automated notifications. Passengers can get real-time updates about estimated waiting time at security lines, locations of specific airline check-in counters, gates or baggage belts.

Retail concessions and restaurants can use location-based services to promote offers which will lead to increased interaction with passengers and a subsequent increase in revenue. Critical passenger or situational information can be shared directly between relevant parties in real-time – getting the right information to the right people, exactly when it is needed.

Open APIs – the key to connecting people with processes

For this to happen, systems need to be de-siloed and communication tools, such as instant messaging, voice, document sharing, video and alerts, need to be integrated directly into applications and systems. This is possible with open APIs beginning to come from some of the world’s leading communications vendors – giving technology partners and third-party providers the opportunity to make communication and collaboration tools a central feature of digital airport services, not a disconnected afterthought.

Intelligent airports – not just a vision, but a reality

To meet these challenges, airports need innovative solutions and infrastructure must be used more intelligently. Airports need to use technology to make the most of their budget and resources, to manage rising volumes of travellers, meet the increasing demands of tech-savvy passengers and commercial tenants.

The need for real-time information exchange will see airports adopt new technologies for a free-flow of communication. Innovations that integrate smart devices and share information at every point of a passenger’s journey, and enable greater communication between civil aviation stakeholders, will play a vital role.

But rolling out the right infrastructure needs careful planning, an eye on future developments and a security-first approach – from customer-facing services, right down to the hardware. The Intelligent Airport is more than a vision, it’s a must. With the right infrastructure, it has the potential to become a global reality.

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