The future era of technology-driven smart airports
To keep pace with the ever-increasing needs and demands, airports worldwide are constantly evolving. With air travel on the rise again, airports are not just expected to facilitate passengers and cargo movement; they also need to expand their horizons to cover other crucial aspects, like:
- Execution of seamless operations with low to minimal manual intervention,
- Augmenting safety and health protocols,
- Optimizing the use of facilities, preventing wastage, and becoming sustainable,
- Scaling up scrutiny and security, and,
- Boosting passenger experience.
At the same time, with the high scarcity of human resources in most of Europe and North America, the need to establish measures to utilize resources efficiently has never been as critical.
The challenges are not new; airports have been addressing them over the years by embracing technology at different stages of their growth. However, each of these challenges has evolved and needs airports to adopt state-of-the-art technologies to keep up with the changed dynamics. This evolving era of airport digitalization and digital disruption, which saw its inception decades back, constitutes what we call ”smart airports”.
Within the smart airport ecosystem
Smart airports stimulate the need for an integrated and comprehensive ecosystem that demands the airports to be not only fully functional but also intuitive, efficient, and predictive. This also requires that the manual airport processes, which are often slow and error-prone, be reduced and digitally governed to bring automation, efficiency, and accuracy to day-to-day functioning.
Smart airports are functional, intuitive, efficient, predictive, and digitally governed.
Therefore, it becomes imperative that digital technologies and solutions like cloud networks, biometrics, mobility solutions, data science and related fields, immersive technologies and IoT, and other sensors-based solutions, be leveraged increasingly to encompass the diverse areas of airport operations and processes.
Although the smart airport concept is blooming in several spheres, the following are the three regions where we think airports can drive maximum gains:
1. Achieving airport operational efficiency through data and digital engineering
Airports are structurally complex, and a single channel does not drive their smooth functioning. A deeper understanding of the intricate association and dependency of various airport departments has brought awareness that siloed operations cannot be the solution to achieving operational efficiency and resilience. Airport stakeholders need to be transparent and readily available with real-time data they can exchange to deliver consistent and exceptional performance.
With the right technology and data solutions, airport stakeholders can achieve efficiency and productivity.
To achieve this, more and more airports should start adopting networking and collaborative frameworks like AOP (Airport Operational Plan) and ACDM (Airline Airport Collaborative Decision Making). These frameworks encourage initiatives to promote data sharing and transparency within and between airports.
Data science and AI must be leveraged to derive meaningful insights from past and present data. Building such data-rich integration platforms can help airports extract immediate and real-time information from various interconnected departments. This will help smoothen communication and increase responsiveness in multiple ways. For instance:
- Swift and efficient allocation of gates and counters to airlines
- Smooth passenger flow management with better predictability
- Better resource management
- Improved runway slot adherence
Further, airports can also employ sensor-based solutions in various areas to improve efficiency. For example, using RFID-based solutions that can read data instantly from numerous items like luggage and cargo and can aid in bulk item transportation with proper tracking and tracing. Also, it simplifies the manual and time-consuming inspection of assets by instantly reading information like expiry date, next due scan date, etc., from the asset and sending it back to the data source.
Similarly, technology in the form of mobile solutions can also stand out in comparison to the usual paper-based checks. Their highly interactive and data-rich interfaces allow airport staff to send immediate updates, retrieve data, and take corrective actions.
2. Upscaling the passenger experience
Since passengers spend more than 60% of their total travel time at the airport premises, their comfort and convenience put a lot of onus on the airport’s authority. Even with many initiatives to smoothen the process, passengers invariably express their distress towards adhering to the airport’s elaborate checks and protocols. The actual journey that begins from flight take-off for passengers exhausts them beforehand due to the:
- Need to reach airports hours before flights take off,
- Long and unpredictable waiting times in several queues,
- The exhaustive process of baggage tracking and collection,
- Extensive scans and scrutiny, and,
- Being unheard and feeling lost in the complex airport maze.
Understanding passengers’ needs, their interaction with various touch points across the whole journey, predicting their next move, recommending them with the right offer, and intuitively guiding them in the right way are some areas where airports can effectively act. Again, customer data plays an important role here. Keeping track of customer preferences, concerns, and historical transactions can help airports in improving those relationships and bring in a personal touch.
The long-term vision of airports for a passenger aims to shift the notion of “being stuck inside the airport” to “experiencing a world of leisure and excitement.”
With features like smart parking, virtual queues, digital identities, baggage notifications, personalized merchandizing and recommendations, smart menus and smart washrooms, virtual assistance, and an immersive feel, more and more airports can work to provide a different experience beyond the usual to the passengers.
3. Bringing in greener initiatives
Now that the aviation industry’s contribution towards global greenhouse emissions is well established (around 3% of the total emissions), airports need to pace up to achieve their target of becoming carbon neutral by 2050 or before. The path to net zero is long and challenging, and although there are measures being taken, much is yet to be done in this zone.
By embracing smart operations using data and analytics, airports can reduce their carbon emissions.
Some ways to become a green airport would involve the following:
- Tracking & MitigationThe first step requires thorough analysis and regular tracking of direct and indirect sources that contribute to emissions. After that, airports need to define immediate short-term and long-term sustainability targets. To achieve this, airports must start by leveraging sustainability tracking solutions and showing progress towards net zero objectives. For example, using cloud-based sustainability platforms that offer detailed dashboards and provide periodic details on fuel consumption, offset achieved, emissions via waste, business travel, etc., and other sources and provide a clear progress report using science-based targets.
- Moderating the consumptionAlthough some airports are also considering shifting towards renewable energy sources by setting up solar panels and using CNG, reducing incidents from day-to-day airport operations (wherein the consumption of resources like fuel, water, and electricity goes much beyond the need) should also be tracked. Keeping a continuous and consistent check on these expenditures would certainly go a long way in keeping up with the net zero goals.
Technologies like sensor-based IoT devices could also be harnessed to regulate the usage of electricity, water, and air conditioning as per need by sensing a human presence. Similarly, computer vision-based ML solutions could be used to build smart dustbins that identify types of waste and help in proper disposal. Leveraging AI and analytics could aid airports in measuring the food, paper, and other waste passengers generate. This can help drive eco-conscious passenger initiatives.
In the stride to become exceptionally performant, there is a continuous need for airports to explore further upcoming avenues and adapt. Also, emerging technologies and innovations play a huge role in curating specific solutions, and the coming times will see them being leveraged even more. It would be apt to say that with all these digital disruptions, the long-term vision of airports will be to bring efficiency, comfort, and luxury inside the terminals.
Article by Nagarro