Reality check-in: a sneak peak at airports of the future

From digital passports to chatbots, electric aircraft, facial recognition and 5G robots, new-fangled technology is taking airports into a new era but not quite in time for this summer break! Sally White reports

Airports! Not exactly a turn-on at the peak of the seasonal mass tourist migration. Yet holidays offer the chance to check out the reality of how ‘smart’ they have actually made themselves to deliver on the ubiquitous promises of a ‘seamless passenger experience’. Airports are throwing enough money at achieving this – a report from New York-based market research group, Polaris, puts the size of the market at $31 billion by 2026 and says it is expanding at over 11% a year.

Although most of the focus at the Paris Air Show a few weeks ago was on the planes and their engines, airside operations also got their fair share of attention, on problems such as the eco-system challenges of managing large-scale introduction of hybrid or even fully electric aircraft. Futuristic it may seem, but Scandinavian carrier SAS and Airbus are already putting their research teams to work on this.

Digital solutions for safety, payment and passenger mobility are priority sectors

While less exciting for the tech geeks, however, it was the digital solutions for safety, payment and passenger mobility that were the sectors that most concerned airport executives there. As the UK magazine Flight Global commented in a look at 2030, “...airports will most likely be single-terminal, carefully designed to minimise the distance to the departure gate. Your smart mobile device will keep you informed throughout your journey and guide you all the way to your seat in the plane. Security risk assessments and immigration clearances will be done in advance, while biometric sensors will authenticate your identity on arrival at the airport.”

Airports away

Step-by-step airports are working towards that, and more, as the latest news shows. At Hamburg luggage drops are now almost fully automated. At Beijing Capital International Airport a trial is starting of China’s first intelligent robotic parking system, according to Beijing News.

Schiphol has announced that it has becomes WeChat Pay’s first smart airport in Europe - The WeChat app will give Chinese passengers access to a package of services and they can browse through the range of virtually all the retail outlets, place an order and then collect them before departure.

The first digital passports are being trialled later this year, and the technology could roll out by 2020. Vision-Box has signed an agreement with governments and several airlines to officially launch the ‘Known Traveller Digital Identity’ service, which will facilitate paperless border clearance between Canada and The Netherlands.

Vision Box, a Portuguese biometric technology group, is also working with the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands to better understand how people interact with machines, with the aim of creating avatars that reflect the passengers’ own demographics. “You don’t need to adjust or adapt – we adapt to you,” says Jean-Francois Lennon, Vision Box Vice President Global Business Development & Sales.  Avatars are being used in New York airports to answer passengers’ questions, but airports are mainly looking to use them in security systems.

Edinburgh Airport has invested ‘in everything from online chatbots to trolley-tracking applications to manage our assets and sensors to enable proactive bin emptying’

Edinburgh has announced a partnership with IT advisers FarrPoint to ensure that it can manage the cost and scalability of operating 180 different applications and a rise of over 120% in international passengers.  “We have invested in everything from online chatbots to trolley-tracking applications to manage our assets and sensors to enable proactive bin emptying,” the airport’s CIO David Gammie told FlightGlobal magazine. One of the benefits is that “95% fast-track passengers are moving through security in under five minutes, and 90% of regular passengers moving through security in under 10 minutes.”

Hamad International Airport is stepping up introduction of facial biometric recognition across all key touch points. In a successful trial around 40 per cent of the home carrier Qatar Airways’ passengers preferred to self-check-in; and a further 20 per cent opted for self-bag-drop.

South Korean electronics giant LG is working on 5G robots, partnering with Korean carrier SK Telecom. LG is planning to commercialise the cloud-based autonomous robots, which will be connected to SK Telecom’s 5G network. They will be used for patrolling for security 24/7 airport facilities and warehouses, the companies said.

A radical 2030 vision of what could happen to luggage from Devin Liddell, principal brand strategist for TEAGUE, Boeing’s long-standing design partner  is: “Carousels will be gone. Those hulking monoliths will be replaced by direct-to-destination services for bags. Basically, bags will be dropped off by passengers well before the airport at transit stations and even more unexpected partner locations such as Starbucks.

“Tagged and then tracked throughout the journey, those bags will then largely be delivered straight to hotels, transit stations, even Amazon lockers. This will likely be true even for bags passing through international customs, as trusted traveller programmes grow and technologies for screening bags advance.”

The last of the travel hassles eliminated! Unfortunately that is for the future - now for the 2019 reality check!

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