With predictions that air passenger numbers will double to 8.2 billion by 2037, airlines and airports know there’s work to do to ensure their operations remain efficient.
Many are constrained by their physical size so, instead, are turning to technology to automate and streamline processes.
London's Heathrow Airport is no exception, and the company is working on a number of concepts employing new technologies and putting data to better use.
During last week’s SITA Euro Summit in Lisbon, Heathrow’s chief technology officer Russell Willans shared some of the concepts the facility is considering, such as a trial with scanning technology LIDAR and how it could be used for digital twin mapping (technology that acts as a digital twin of what’s happening in the airport and aggregates as much operational data as possible and presents it as a graphical overlay).
Willans says that while the technology is very accurate, at £250,000 per camera it’s not yet cost-efficient.
Some airports, however, including New York’s La Guardia, are already employing digital twin technology for airport operations.
SITA Labs lead engineer Kevin O’Sullivan sees it as "the future of airport management."
The digital twinning provides a picture of the status of the airport and helps to identify and resolve issues but can also build "what if?" scenarios to aid future planning.
O’Sullivan says La Guardia has had the technology running for about a year and will next try to predict passenger flow, with the idea to bring in more data for a better picture of operations and scenarios.
SITA plans to productize the technology, with airports in Boston and Doha also on board.
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Willans also highlights Heathrow's smart stand concept and says there is a need for collaboration between airline and airport stakeholders.
“When you think about the turn operation - typically you can have airline staff, airport staff and in some case ground handlers are involved as well, so there’s a three-way split of information sharing," he says.
"From an airport's perspective a lot of this information can be quite visible, an aircraft is on or off chock but all the bits of the turn that happen in the middle are highly visible to the airline but not so visible to the airport. In terms of the shared value and objective of trying to work on on-time performance, it can be really valuable to get some data.”
The airport’s smart stand concept involves a range of automation trials, in partnership with British Airways parent IAG, to drive efficiency and improve turnaround times.
LIDAR is also being used here, this time for "foreign object" detection.
Blockchain at airports
A further element is looking at all the activity that goes on around an aircraft when it arrives from baggage handling to catering and fuel, using video analytics to gain insights into operations as well as employing machine learning to track what went well, what didn’t and how it might be improved.
A final trial, according to Willans, involves blockchain to create a "collaborative version of the truth."
The initiative sees Heathrow working with other airports, airlines and government departments to ensure the integrity of data from reservation systems, scheduling, flight planning, departure control and air traffic control.
“If you look at the way the airline/airport industry works, each of the different stages collects data. In this data collection there is the potential for data to pick up undesirable attributes or decay on that journey," Willans says.
"If you have an issue with one part, the whole system collapses. There has to be a better way.”
The hope is that by using blockchain technology, more resilience can be built in to the data journey, with trust created between parties who might normally be wary of sharing data.
SITA's latest IT Insights report shows that when it comes to emerging technologies, airlines are focusing on artificial intelligence, with 44% saying they are planning a major program by 2022.
Blockchain is also singled out, with 15% saying they have a major program planned by 2022, and 57% say they are running a pilot project.
* The reporter's attendance at the event was supported by SITA.
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