Let’s push the tech envelope – SITA Lab breaks more ground

SITA Lab’s groundbreaking work continues to grab industry IT headlines ... the world’s first trial of NFC boarding passes and first use of Google Glass technology for serving passengers, among its many accolades. So what are the latest innovations getting the Lab team excited?

Mobile excellence

The logical place to start is with mobile. Humans have adopted no other technology faster and it’s now permeating every aspect of air travel both for passengers and staff.

Travel apps are everywhere and ones that can differentiate the passenger experience through ease of use and functionality are the apps that will get adopted.

The Lab‘s been researching apps and the IT architecture around them for several years, developing over 50 mobile apps and in doing so becoming a leader in the mobile travel space.

APIs

The Lab is a strong advocate of application programming interfaces, or APIs, as they’re known to developers, as a way to stimulate mobile innovation. APIs act as building blocks for creating apps and when done well, make software development faster and easier. 

One result has been the creation of an API portal, called www.developer.aero, that’s become the go-to platform for developers wanting access to industry data. It handles millions of API calls a day. 

By building APIs that access industry data the Lab’s been able to spearhead a wave of travel app innovation.

 

Common-use

By developing a common-use API, airlines are able to focus their development efforts on the front-end experience for their passengers, while we at SITA take care of the back-end complexity resulting from all the changes and upgrades made by phone manufacturers. 

Garry Kelly, Sr. Lead Solution Architect, SITA Lab

Boarding

A good example is a common use API that enables airlines to create and distribute mobile boarding passes to their passengers without having to worry about Software Development Kit (SDK) changes to iOS, Android and Windows.

The strength of this approach was highlighted when Apple launched boarding pass in Passbook on its iPhone. The lab made the necessary one-time coding changes, enabling all airlines using the API to benefit from Apple Passbook from day one with no effort needed on their side.

To date the API is used to digitally board more than 35 million passengers a year, saving airlines money and eliminating check-in queues for passengers.

Community approach

Garry Kelly, Senior Lead Solution Architect, SITA Lab, believes this type of community approach to mobile boarding passes makes life a lot easier for airlines than going it alone. He reckons it should help push along the industry goal of paperless travel. 

“Airlines are faced with a common problem when they develop mobile services, because the service must work on a wide range of phone models running different operating software. 

“By developing a common-use API, airlines are able to focus their development efforts on the front-end experience for their passengers, while we at SITA take care of the back-end complexity resulting from all the changes and upgrades made by phone manufacturers,” he says.

It’s an approach that appeals to airlines. JetBlue and Virgin Atlantic are two of the airlines using the service, which is fully compliant with regulations, including in the US where the TSA requires encrypted mobile boarding passes.

Day of travel 

A succession of other SITA Lab-developed APIs is now available to the wider development community on its developer.aero platform, including seven that underpin an evolving suite of mobile information services for passengers on their day of travel. 

Such services use predictive and contextual technologies. They can be integrated into airport or airline apps to give passengers who download it onto their smartphone a personalized set of services relating to their trip, depending on where they’re currently located. (See: A new era of intelligence and Empower your passengers)

Added to this is the potential of APIs in realizing nose-to-tail approaches for e-enabling ‘connected or eAircraft’. APIs are capable of unlocking valuable data from airlines’ connected aircraft. (See: How to harness terabytes of data)

Context and proximity 

Getting the rich functionality of web pages into the much smaller mobile form factor is the ongoing challenge. In fact, lack of usability is cited by passengers as a key reason for slow adoption of mobile services.

Stepping up to the plate, the Lab is driving improvements in travel app usability, as well as developing a more personalized experience for users via the use of context and proximity services.

Excited by work that is now well underway, Renaud Irminger, Head of SITA Lab, makes a point of highlighting "usability and ease of use as a driving force in design.”

"The focus today is on context to give a highly personalized experience to the passenger, as well as an improved look and feel with clearer text and higher resolution graphics," he says.

Community resource 

This type of joint innovation reflects the ethos of the Lab to build relationships and work with the industry, developing co-innovation projects as a community resource. 

“Part of the success of SITA Lab is the direct result of working closely with our customers and members. By partnering, we’re able to take ideas out of the lab environment and test them in live situations to get real world data and insight,” says Irminger. 

“It’s extremely important to make sure the technology is robust enough for the demanding conditions and pace of air transport.”

He cites wearable technology as an example. “This can work well in a controlled environment, but with Google Glass, for instance, we needed to find out whether battery life and connectivity issues from continuous use in a busy airport would take its toll and reduce performance. For this, working with Virgin Atlantic at Heathrow Airport was a perfect testing ground."

Partnerships 

Two longer term partnerships formed by the Lab are with Orange Business Services and a major Asia Pacific airport. 

The first one with Orange spearheaded a number of projects, including an extensive program on indoor geolocation technology in which the Lab designed the world’s first indoor Wi-Fi-based tracking system in a large public space at an airport in Northern Europe in 2011.

NFC

Another headline project has been investigating use cases for near field communications (NFC), a close range wireless data transfer technology incorporated in most  smartphones, and often touted as the future of mobile payments and public transport ticketing. 

The Lab and Orange conducted several NFC projects, the latest being in 2014, working with Air France and Toulouse Airport. 

It focused on developing a proof of concept showing a passenger with an NFC-enabled phone and mobile boarding pass could travel through the different touch points of the airport and board the aircraft with just a ‘touch and go.’ 

“NFC has proved popular with the passengers and airline executives that have tested it, so we think it  has a bright future within our industry and we expect to see widespread deployment of the technology by the end of 2016,” says Irminger.

“As a result of our work we’ve published a technical standard for NFC use within air transport, which we are discussing with numerous industry stakeholders.”

Queue busting 

The Lab is also working on joint innovation projects with a major Asia Pacific airport. They’ve recently completed trialing tablets for common-use check-in, which could allow staff to rove around the terminal and check-in passengers and cut queues. 

The results are still being assessed, but the early indications are that tablet technology can be a useful tool for queue busting in airports where space constraints restrict the ability to open up new check-in desks at peak times.

Also with this airport, the Lab developed an innovative cloud and API solution to match the passenger name record (PNR) with the name on the passenger’s passport. This tool ensures passengers are compliant with flying regulations and avoids fines imposed by the government on airlines for badly documented passengers. 

Beacons 

Then there are beacons, another area where the Lab has led the way. These are small, low powered transmitters of Bluetooth signals that can trigger an action by an app on a smartphone or tablet. Having developed an expertise in the indoor positioning space, the Lab was uniquely placed to rapidly assess the possibilities offered by beacons. 

As Kevin O’Sullivan, SITA Lab's Principal Solution Architect explains, “Beacons enable proximity awareness, which means that when a mobile device with its Bluetooth switched on moves into range it can trigger actions on an app applicable to that location. 

“Essentially this means airlines or airport can contextualize the information they send to the passenger making it more relevant and useful.” 

An early trial completed at one airport in Northern Europe showed that around 30% of travelers have Bluetooth enabled on their mobile device at the airport, while another 26% were willing to activate Bluetooth on request.

The project confirmed that a vast majority (81%) of passengers would accept tracking of their location around the airport, an encouraging signal for wider deployment of beacons.

Better when shared

Good ideas get better when shared. Through our work we want the whole community to benefit from the experience. This can only serve to push the tech envelope more, and to build a better industry. 

Jim Peters, Chief Technology Officer, SITA

 

Use cases 

Since these pioneering trials, which also included a pilot program at Heathrow Airport, the Lab has started developing and testing the different potential use cases. 

An early learning made by the Lab from beacon projects was that it would be impractical for each airline or other airport-based business to deploy its own set of beacons at each airport. 

 “It was clear from our work that it makes more sense for the industry to come together and build a common infrastructure of beacons at each airport, available to everyone and based on a single standard,” says O’Sullivan. 

To solve the problem the Lab has built a common-use registry to allow airlines and airports to share beacons, and released an API for developers who want to use these beacons to build travel-related apps.

In tandem, SITA, ACI and IATA are developing the governance and technical standards for the registry to ensure airline apps can work with beacons at airports worldwide and these should be finalized by the end of 2016. (See: Beacon promise)

Tech curve 

What new technologies might we be seeing in the future when we fly? Irminger believes some wearable technologies could become a useful tool for passengers and staff. In this area, the Lab has striven to be ahead of the tech curve. 

It was the first to run a project using Google Glass in the industry, working with Virgin Atlantic to test passenger reaction and the robustness of the devices. 

The Lab followed this up with a smartwatch project at Québec City Jean Lesage International Airport involving the world’s first use of the Apple Watch™ for an airport workforce. The airport uses the watches to push regular operational alerts to duty managers and ensure operations run smoothly.

The Lab team built the application for the airport and conducted all the systems integration work to link the Apple Watch to the airport management system.

Potential

 “Wearable technologies are still a work in progress, but they have the potential to make life easier for passengers as well as for the workforce,” says Irminger.

“For example, it’s more convenient for passengers to glance at a smartwatch for a flight update than to get out their mobile device, especially if they’re walking and carrying bags.

“Similarly, staff who need to use their hands might also find a smartwatch a better alternative to receive information for some tasks than a mobile device,” says Irminger.

He expects payments to drive the adoption of smartwatches. “People who use Apple Pay just love it, because by just placing your wrist to a reader you conduct a transaction in a very secure manner,” he says.

“When wearable devices like Apple Watch™ are able to use NFC to transmit boarding passes, hotel keys, card keys, our home key, passport data and more, they’ll become hugely popular and ubiquitous like smartphones.”

Unmanned aircraft

Another technology the Lab is getting ahead of the curve on is drones.

“We’re finding there are many uses cases in our industry for drones, such as runway surveillance or plane body inspection, so we’ve started some investigations of the most promising ones.

“We believe that drones will be a very important ecosystem in the future that will need secure connectivity for communications, flight planning, weather services, as well as tracking and monitoring,” explains Irminger.

One trial the Lab has conducted recently with both Delta Air Lines and a Middle East airline is usage of drones to inspect the top part of aircraft for damage from hailstones, lightening or bird strikes, but where it is more difficult and risky for staff to work. The aim is to build a video and photo analytics platform that can analyze captured images from the drone.

Irminger also sees the potential to use drones for verifying that aircraft de-icing has been performed successfully before take-off. (See the video below: Drone research for air transport.)

Big questions

It’s almost impossible to discuss new technologies without mentioning big data. The Lab has conducted several big data projects working with the highly respected Lab at Georgia Tech Research Institute, who are leaders in operational research.

One project with an airport in the Asia Pacific region involved testing the accuracy of different technologies in predicting queue times and passenger flows, while another, working with an airline, analyzed operational data to determine root causes of flight disruptions. 

Plans are now being discussed to use IBM’s Watson platform, which can perform complex analytics and machine learning on vast amounts of fragmented data, both structured and unstructured, in order to uncover insights. The Lab’s keeping details of the project tightly under wraps for the moment.

Spreading the word

There’s no limit to the number of good ideas out there that could benefit air transport, so it’s no surprise that the Lab is eager to tap into the ecosystem of tech startup companies.

Jim Peters, SITA CTO, says the Lab is working on extending the reach of SITA’s innovation via participation in hackathons and innovation sessions, as well as looking to allocate more resources to conduct incubation of start-ups and x-prizes. 

The Lab already organizes an annual Innovation Day where companies with new technologies showcase ideas to an invited audience of industry technology specialists. Further ahead, the Lab is looking to establish a SITA Venture Fund focused solely on investing in early stage funding of travel related start-ups.

Next step

Peters and Irminger believe such a fund marks an important next step for SITA to build its capacity to innovate. “We’re still finalizing the details, but it’s going to be an effective way for us to capture new technology and expertise more quickly and improve our pace of invention.

“This approach has already proved successful in one tie-up with a tech startup that provides interactive indoor maps we use in our mobile apps and beacon trials.”

While Irminger says the Lab is keen to build a community of like-minded innovators, he stresses that the Lab is as much about disseminating its own extensive knowledge and experiences as it is about taking learning from others.

It already spends a good part of its time sharing technology with other research bodies and each year holds a number of innovation events around the world to exchange knowledge and ideas with customers.

As Peters concludes: “Good ideas get better when shared. Through our work we want the whole community to benefit from the experience. This can only serve to push the tech envelope more, and to build a better industry.”

Drone research for air transport

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