Gateway to the internet of things – beacons

As we step towards the Internet of Things, beacons are proving to be a crucial part of the mix in getting proximity and context information to mobile devices.

Connected travel: proximity

 The Internet of Things (IoT) describes a system in which the Internet is connected to the physical world via sensors everywhere. It’s reckoned that, by 2020, there will be 26 billion devices connected to the Internet.

Pretty much everything will get an IP address and an ability to send and/or receive data. At the enterprise level, this will be focused around managing all the physical things, everywhere.

For connected travelers, the IoT gives more options to link into the industry’s IT ecosystem from their device of choice, in the air and on the ground.

At the same time, it enables the discrete acquisition of data about passenger flow, location and density to allow better management of resources within the airport environment.

Insights

The trick has been to find the best means of making the connection, of achieving the right level of proximity that suits the particular purpose.

“Proximity sensing is poised to have a major impact on industry operations,” says the SITA Lab’s Renaud Irminger, Director of SITA Lab. “In a phrase, proximity sensing connects the digital world (mobile devices) with the physical world (location).”

It relies on sensors to detect the presence of nearby objects, and is now ripe for progress because the means for joining it all together has advanced in the last couple of years. Technologies such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are now common on mobile devices.

Linking airport and airline technology to a passenger’s mobile enables the leveraging of new data sets to give unprecedented insights into passenger flow and behavior at the airport. This will make a massive contribution to improving airport operations.

Using aggregated and anonymous geolocation data, airport operators can keep an eye on passenger flows and adjust operational procedures to smooth out the peaks. They can give passengers accurate queuing times at security and other bottlenecks, helping to avoid congestion.

Beacons will play a big part in the creation of intelligent airports able to successfully exploit business intelligence and analytics.

Location-based

SITA Lab has worked for several years on how to enable location-based services in the airport, in order to monitor passenger flow and measure queues, for example. 

Renaud Irminger, Director, SITA Lab

Pioneers

A number of tools and approaches feature on the location-based services landscape, including Wi-Fi triangulation, Indoor GPS and now Bluetooth. Each has its own strengths.

“SITA Lab has worked for several years on how to enable location-based services in the airport, in order to monitor passenger flow and measure queues, for example,” says Irminger.

“With our partner Orange Business Service we had a multi-year research project as part of our Joint Innovation Program.

“We already found in 2010 that Wi-Fi triangulation is an interesting technology for airports and now we’re also exploring Bluetooth technology and beacons as the basis for use cases for the air transport industry.”

A forerunner in the arena was Copenhagen Airport, which worked with the Lab from 2010 and was the first airport to harness captured data to track passenger flow throughout the airport’s Wi-Fi coverage areas.

The same technology was used by Copenhagen Airport and SITA to show passengers where they were inside the airport and to launch the world's first indoor augmented reality app for passengers to use at an airport.

At that time, the iPhone app – downloaded from the airport’s website – allowed passengers to find information on where they are in the airport.

It displayed what services are available in their vicinity and how they can find their gate, all by using the phone's camera to ‘scan’ their immediate surroundings.

The app, developed by a combined team from the airport, SITA Lab and Novasa, used triangulation and signal strength from Wi-Fi access points to determine the location of individual passenger mobile phones.

It then calculated what the user is looking at through the handset’s mobile device and feeds in the appropriate functions.

Beacon promise

Arriving fast to the location services scene are beacons. Simple and cheap to install and operate, beacons bring great promise to the field of proximity sensing.

“Beacons are an indoor proximity system available in various shapes and sizes but can be as small as a USB stick or larger and more visible,” says SITA Lab Lead Architect Kevin O’Sullivan.

“They transmit a signal using Bluetooth low energy, or BLE for short – the signal contains a unique identifier for that beacon.”

When a BLE-enabled device, such as a smartphone, moves within range of the beacon’s signal it can trigger an action, such as displaying a contextually relevant message on the phone. Beacons make possible a new range of user interactions.

The beacon can trigger an app on your smartphone to send notifications or promotional coupons as you enter a specific zone, such as a shop, cafe or airport lounge. It could also direct you to areas of interest and provide additional information on specific items, making museums and art galleries another potential user of the technology.

NFC clarity

The technology inevitably draws comparisons with Near Field Communication (NFC), with commentators saying Apple’s iBeacons are an NFC killer.

“In reality the two technologies address separate use cases and concerns,” says O’Sullivan. "NFC works well when two devices are very close to each other (1-5 cm) but not for larger areas.”

NFC allows communications between the phone and a reader or another NFC phone to transfer information.

Because it’s secure, and requires phone owners to physically place their phones close to a reader or other device, NFC is seen as an opportunity for everything from electronic wallets, where money can be stored and transferred, to credit card information. It is even replacing the traditional card swipe for payment such as for Apple Pay.

Irminger again: “The travel industry is looking closely at the many possible uses. SITA Lab has gained considerable NFC experience, with a number of trials such as the Toulouse Blagnac Airport Pass premium VIP card, Schiphol Airport CUTE NFC demo deployment as well as an NFC boarding pass trial with Air France/KLM at Toulouse Blagnac Airport.”

An especially promising area is the electronic boarding pass on a mobile device, allowing passengers to board via a touch of the phone to a reader rather than the traditional paper boarding pass or a barcode on the mobile handset screen.

NFC can be read more easily than the barcode on a screen, and it can still work when a phone is out of battery life or turned off.

Potential

Beacons provide a proximity-based alerting system that can trigger an app on a smartphone at a much greater distance. One travel example could be to display a boarding pass stored in a mobile wallet like Passbook.

However, the beacon is not used to exchange data between the phone and boarding pass reader, unlike NFC, which does transfer data.

Even so, O’Sullivan has no doubts as to the opportunity provided by beacons. “This could be the opportunity the industry has been waiting for to personalize mobile services for passengers at the airport, while also giving extra information for airport management.

“Because beacons have a motion sensor, put them in lifts and on walkways and they can report if a thing that is supposed to be moving is not moving. Put them in the baggage system and they can monitor the belt and vibration of the system. The potential uses really are extraordinary.”

Common use

There is a ‘but’. Airports operate in a heavily regulated environment using relatively dense wireless infrastructure. With both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi using the 2.4GHz range, what’s the impact of adding another technology that shares this space?

SITA Radio Engineer Tobias Food has done the research: “Deploying only a handful of beacons around an airport is unlikely to impact existing Wi-Fi signals. However, there is a clear relationship between the number of beacon deployments (density), the power setting (which controls the range) and the advertising interval (frequency of emission).

“Too many beacons deployed at the wrong settings will disrupt each other’s signals, and existing Wi-Fi infrastructure. Airports will need to know where beacons are being deployed and how.”

Airports are shared environments and SITA’s view is that beacons should be treated as common-use infrastructure. Airports serve multiple airlines, and airlines travel to multiple airports.

There’s no need for every stakeholder to deploy all their own beacons when beacons can be easily shared, especially in common areas.

Personalization

This could be the opportunity the industry has been waiting for to personalize mobile services for passengers at the airport, while also giving extra information for airport management. 

Kevin O'Sullivan, Lead Architect, SITA Lab

Everyone wins

That’s why SITA has set up the air transport Common Use Beacon Registry, at www.developer.aero. For those using the system, it means beacons can be operated using the same common-use approach that’s proved so successful with other shared services and infrastructure.

Forerunners in the use of this approach to adopting beacons are American Airlines and Miami International Airport, two of several customers SITA Lab is currently working with.

This would solve the problem of multiple airlines wanting to install separate beacons at an airport’s shared gates. It would also solve the problem of connecting multiple airports’ beacons together in a cohesive and easily accessible way.

The registry is beacon vendor agnostic and will ensure beacons use a common form of data sets based on industry standards. This will enable all industry players to leverage existing common use beacons deployments at airports throughout the world – including developers looking to create new apps for use worldwide.

Bright future

As the IoT approaches, beacon technology may not be the whole story but it’s clearly a crucial part of location services and a gateway to a new era.

It’s certainly coming of age in sectors away from air transport, particularly in the retail environment. This will habituate passengers to the technology and encourage adoption across the air transport community.

It’s easy to envisage customer service-driven travel providers ready to provide the right information to the right passengers at the right time.

Airports around the world could become a prime user of the technology, so long as the rules of the game are agreed within the community - and so long as a piecemeal approach is avoided.

That 'Internet of Things' thing

The phrase ‘Internet of Things’ was coined by British technologist Kevin Ashton in 1997 while exploring the potential of RFID for supply chain management at consumer goods company Procter & Gamble. Two years later he went on to cofound the Auto-ID Labs at MIT, which created a global standard system for RFID and other sensors. In 2008, SITA collaborated with Auto-ID Labs in Cambridge, UK on a study of aircraft turnaround processes and the role RFID could play in areas such as boarding, cleaning and security.

In a June 2009 article for WIRED Magazine, Ashton noted how the internet is almost wholly dependent on human beings for the petabytes of information stored there.

“The problem is, people have limited time, attention and accuracy—all of which means they are not very good at capturing data about things in the real world. Our economy, society and survival aren't based on ideas or information—they're based on things. Yet today's information technology is so dependent on data originated by people that our computers know more about ideas than things.

“If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things—using data they gathered without any help from us—we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost. We would know when things needed replacing, repairing or recalling, and whether they were fresh or past their best.

“We need to empower computers with their own means of gathering information, so they can see, hear and smell the world for themselves, in all its random glory. RFID and sensor technology enable computers to observe, identify and understand the world—without the limitations of human-entered data.”

See also

A mind-blowing revolution

A mind-blowing revolutionThe Internet of Things is mind-blowing. So too are its implications for a connected air transport industry, says Jim Peters, CTO, SITA.

Read his column

Miami's cool beacon use

Miami's cool beacon useMiami International Airport was the first in the world to have a complete and open deployment of beacons throughout its facilities. Director of Information Systems and Telecommunications Maurice Jenkins is a keen advocate.

Read the article

The American experience

The American experienceAmerican Airline’s Director of Mobile Apps and Wearable Technology, Phillip Easter believes knowing where a passenger is before sending information enables more effective communication.

Read the article

The power of data ... released

The power of data releasedThe beauty of having simple application programming interface (API) access to a wealth of data is that this data can be reused over and over again across multiple applications and customer touch points.

Read the article

Featured resources

Beacons continuously broadcast a signal giving shoppers additional product information, directions around the store and even enabling hands-free payments - so no more queuing. But do they really work in the real world, and if so what can they do for air transport?

Learn more
Subscribe to the Air Transport IT Review