Airports Embrace Smart Technology

Biometric scanning, drone ‘birds’ and RFID luggage tracking are among the advances now arriving.

U.S. airports continue to get busier and busier, and passengers hate the air travel experience as much as ever. But airports are embracing smart technology to make it more efficient and pleasurable and also improve operations behind the scenes.

Here are some examples of the smart technology that’s touching ground.

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Improving the passenger experience

Airports are looking to technology to improve some of the more challenging aspects of air travel for passengers.

Apps and maps. The industry is very focused on smartphones. Last year Houston premiered an interactive wayfinding map on fly2houston.com that guides passengers step-by-step on the most efficient path from point A to B. In March, SeaTac Airport joined the Aira Airport Network, which lets visually impaired passengers use smart glasses and an app to navigate the airport. The glasses relay visual information to a live human agent who helps guide the person from curb to gate and assists with check-in.

Beacons. Airports are using Bluetooth beacon technology to inform passengers of wait times for security checkpoints and provide personalized updates and notifications, such flight boarding alerts. The technology is also being used to push coupons for airport merchants.

Biometrics. At some airports, biometrics is speeding international passengers on their way. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) is using facial recognition technology at more than a dozen U.S. airports in its biometric entry and exit programs. During the boarding process you stand in front of a camera. The photo taken is matched to the one on your passport to verify your identity, then you can board without showing documents. You can find these cameras at JetBlue at Boston’s Logan airport and Delta at JFK and Atlanta, for example. In June, the CBP announced that Orlando International Airport would be the first airport in the United States to commit to processing all arriving and departing international travelers with facial recognition technology.

Bathrooms. Even the restroom experience may get better. Los Angeles International has partnered with Tooshlights, which put lights above stall doors to make finding open stalls easier (their slogan: Know where to go”), and Infax, which tracks the number of people who enter and exist and the length of time since the last cleaning and notifies janitors when it’s time for a scrubbing.

Improving airport operations

A lot of airport smart tech is seamless and not the type of thing a passenger might see or notice but definitely something an airport operations manager would.

Robo-birds. Edmonton International Airport in Canada is using drones that look like falcons to scare birds away from runways. The drones, from Clear Flight Solutions, even flap their “wings.”

Smart air traffic control. Singapore’s Chiangi Airport is spending $7 million on a digital smart tower prototype provided by UK-based air traffic management company NATS. It uses a series of linked remote camera feeds and remote advanced “video-stitching” technology to create a “smart” video wall in the control tower. Objects on the screen will be digitally notated (providing, for example, info like speed and heading of an object below its image) and the cameras will pan, tilt and zoom to provide better perspectives.

Smart gate lighting. Johnson Controls is integrating lighting and signage power systems with flight data in places such as Denver International, where their technology helps the airport automatically power down closed or unused gates.

Smart runway light monitoring. Hong Kong International is using the world’s first automated runway light monitoring system. An autonomous rover moves about the field snapping photos of the runway lights. A remote computer using machine learning reads the photos, notes any degradation in the lighting quality and notifies airport personnel, who can intervene if the lighting falls below a certain threshold.

RFID baggage tracking. One thing passengers and airports alike are looking forward to is smarter baggage handling. RFID baggage tracking will help ease frustrations and eliminate time spent tracking down lost luggage, not to mention reducing money spent to reimburse passengers for lost luggage. Delta was one of the first airlines in the United States to use it. Passengers who use the Delta app can receive a notification when their checked bags are on the plane, and Delta can quickly track down luggage that ends up on the wrong flight. In June the International Air Transport Association committed to developing a global plan to standardize and mandate RFID inlays in all baggage tags.

Offsite baggage check-in. What if you could check your bags even before you got to the airport? In some cases you can. At Tampa International Airport you now check your luggage at the rental car center. At Orlando International you can check bags from certain parking garages. From there, the bags go through a dedicated, fully automated remote scanning facility that is monitored and controlled from the terminal.

Making airports smarter is similar to making any business operate with greater efficiency; it’s about doing just as well or better with less.

Ultimately,” Duebner said, “you want to reduce the number of people you have running around checking stuff and enable all your facilities to be able to communicate with you when there is a problem.”

 

Chris Parker has been writing about business, policy, science, sports and music for print and online publications across the country for two decades.

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