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Sensor technologies bring the Intelligent Airport nearer

More and more passengers are using airports that are already congested -- adding to increasing bottlenecks at checkpoints and frustration for passengers trying to catch their flights. Help may come with the increasing deployment of sensor technologies throughout airport terminals which are  increasing  automation and self-service options for passengers.
We bring you a special feature by Maneesh Jaikrishna, Vice President, India and Sub-Continent, SITA, (world leaders in air transport communication technologies and IT) which looks at two of the most promising technologies:

There are two types of technology getting serious attention – Bluetooth and Near Field Communications (NFC).

Bluetooth will cut the queues and cut the stress. It  is commonly used for wireless communication between electronic consumer products and peripherals such as a laptop and printer or a mobile phone and the earpiece. Despite being around since 1999, its use in air travel is still in its infancy. However, most travelers today carry a mobile phone with Bluetooth capability and trials indicate somewhere between 10% and 20% of passengers have them switched to ‘discoverable’ mode. This is considered enough for a reliable and consistent flow of data for measuring traffic flows and queue lengths in and around airports.

Individuals are not identifiable, so respecting privacy issues with the tracking done anonymously and only used in aggregate to analyze traffic patterns and movements.

In Europe, a number of major hubs, including Heathrow and Frankfurt, are already piloting Bluetooth systems for queue monitoring. By obtaining ‘live’ information on traffic flows, airport operators can react much quicker to unfolding events by taking tactical actions, such as deploying extra staff and equipment at bottlenecks, to ensure a proper flow of passengers towards the aircraft. The United States Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has recently confirmed it is to use the Bluetooth queue management system provided by SITA, and its technology partner Bluelon, to automatically measure and display the wait time of passengers at TSA checkpoint lines in US airports.

There can be addition benefits for travelers willing to broadcast their whereabouts. Research from one trial showed that the average traveler checks the flight information displays around four to five times before going to the gate. By enabling Bluetooth, passengers can receive accurate times to the gate reducing their anxiety levels.

But it is not just the passengers that win. Airlines and airports are also seeing the potential.  A small number of airports are using Bluetooth for proximity marketing campaigns. One example is with tourism offices, where visiting passengers are asked to switch on Bluetooth in their mobile phones as they leave the aircraft, allowing them to receive news on special events with discount vouchers as they depart the airport.

This ability to connect passengers with information at the right time, and in the right place, for it to be useful and actionable is driving one of the hottest trends in retail marketing – location-based services, or LBS, as it is fast becoming known. It offers airlines and airports an opportunity to connect with passengers throughout their journey through the airport and inspire them to consider things they may not have thought about before.

Bluetooth could also help the airlines with late passengers. With web or mobile check-in increasingly common, airlines cannot be sure if some passengers have actually made it to airport until they show at the gate. By having Bluetooth sensors located throughout the airport terminals, the airline can be alerted to whether the passenger is in the terminal and how close they are to the gate, giving more accurate information for making a decision on whether to delay the flight.

Near Field Communication will speed up processing: Another exciting development for travelers at airports is an alternative wireless sensor technology called Near Field Communication, or NFC. It is a subset of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) used in car keys, but limits the range of communication to within ten centimeters or four inches, making it much more suitable for situations where data security is an issue. It also has the added advantage over Bluetooth of working even when the receiving device is switched off.

Such is its potential within air travel that IATA joined forces with the GSM Association to produce a white paper exploring six use cases where mobile NFC could bring benefits to air-travelers and the air transport industry. Namely: passenger check-in, baggage check-in, security check-point, lounge access, boarding, and post-flight. The idea is to send a digital form of the current 2D boarding pass to be stored on the mobile phone’s SIM card. By ‘waving’ the phone close to an NFC reader, the boarding pass is authenticated and the passenger able to complete without human intervention the steps in their journey.

While there are obvious benefits for passengers in terms of convenience and simplification of the journey, there are not many NFC-enabled phones available today, to justify a widespread industry roll out of the infrastructure. However, according to Juniper Research that is changing and by 2014 nearly 300 million, or 20% of smart phones shipped, will have NFC capabilities.

Airlines are not waiting. Japan Airlines is the first airline to publicly commit to NFC-based mobile boarding passes, while Qantas is using a contactless card version of the technology to act as a boarding pass throughout the airport touch points.

Europe too is catching on to the possibilities. France's Toulouse-Blagnac Airport has become the world's first airport to trial SIM-based NFC to allow passengers to pass through the airport's checks, controls and gates using only their mobile phones. The phone will effectively become the passengers' pass allowing them access to car parking, the boarding area via a premium access zone and to a premium passenger lounge. At the same time, passengers will receive up to the minute information such as changes to their flight times, departure hall or boarding gate. The trial is a joint effort between SITA, Toulouse-Blagnac Airport, Orange, and BlackBerry.

Research by the SITA Lab, indicates a passenger using an NFC-enabled device can be processed through the airport faster than any of the other boarding processes available today.

Sensing the future

Today sensor technologies at airports are still a work in progress. However, with the uptake of smart phones soaring using wireless sensors for automating touch points and connecting with travelers as they transit the airport will become commonplace. However, a critical enabler for widespread adoption will be the development of standards and common processes that are device and mobile network operator (MNO) independent. Today a one-size-fits-all approach is hamstrung by a multitude of devices, using hundreds of different MNOs over three main smart phone platforms – iPhone, Blackberry, and Android. Yet, despite these early challenges, a more intelligent airport experience is on the way.
Related reading:
 - Where technology can take us
 - The Rise of NFC
January 31 2013