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Beacons show the way (cover story)

Could a beacon and mobile app combination be the killer formula for communicating with passengers within the airport? The SITA Lab is finding out.

New Bluetooth Low Energy devices located in and around physical spaces are starting to revolutionize how customers interact with physical places. They’re bringing the power of the internet into the world all around them.

Beacons, as they’re known, transmit a continuous signal so that when a smartphone moves within range it can trigger an action on a mobile app, such as displaying a contextually relevant message on the phone.

Combined with mobile apps, will beacons show the way forward for communications with passengers at the airport?

Defining features

To start, beacons have a number of useful characteristics that make them easier to work with than other communication technologies, such as Wi-Fi, text or push-notifications, and the much talked about Near Field Communication (NFC).

First, beacon technology is part of the Bluetooth 4.0 standards. It’s already available on current mobile devices so practically anyone with a recent smartphone or tablet will be able to receive the signal from the beacon – and therefore the notifications.

Low cost

In addition, beacons are relatively low cost. For example, several beacon manufacturers are currently offering beacons for as low as US$10 when ordered in bulk, which can send a signal to up to 50 meters.

This can make covering a large floor space a much cheaper proposition than other connectivity solutions, such as Wi-Fi.

A third feature is that the Bluetooth Low Energy used in beacons requires only a miniscule amount of energy to work.

That means they don’t need to be plugged in and can run off a coin-battery for long periods of time – up to nine years. Maintenance is therefore largely hassle-free.

Pinpointing

The really useful attribute of beacon technology though, is that when a smartphone detects a beacon, it can determine the distance to the beacon down to a few meters.

So can GPS, which is also on most smartphones, but GPS doesn’t work well indoors. So while your phone will know you’re standing right outside a building, it loses track of you as soon as you go inside.

This indoor proximity capability of beacons opens up a range of navigation and contextual-aware possibilities inside buildings.

Prime locations

Airports are prime locations for beacons. Given their advantages over other location-sensing technologies, deployment of beacons at airports could provide a low-cost way to send notifications and guide passengers around airports.

Airlines in particular, with their apps stored on a passenger’s phone, will be able to combine the app’s knowledge of the passenger, such as their flight details, with an accurate knowledge of their location in the airport to send contextually relevant information.

Critical timing

The SITA Lab’s Kevin O’Sullivan believes knowing where the passenger is before sending the information can be critical.

“Location is really useful because sending information to the passenger without knowing where they are could be counter-productive,” says O’Sullivan. “If they’re stuck in the security line, for example, you may add to their stress and irritate them.”

“But if sending the information – which might be an offer for a seat upgrade or to use the airline lounge – is triggered only when a passenger passes a beacon placed after security, he or she may be more open to consider it.

“In these days of mass communication, it’s not good enough to just send relevant information to the passenger. It’s much better to send it at the right time. Beacon technology is a low cost way to ensure that,” he says.

Directions

Beacons can also be used as an effective way to offer directions and guidance to passengers en route to their gates.

There are alternatives for indoor mapping using triangulation technologies, such as Wi-Fi and cellular signals. But when deployed correctly, beacons are claimed to be far more accurate and require less complex background infrastructure.

Equally, at the destination airport a beacon placed in the jetway could direct the deplaning passenger to their connecting gate or to the correct carousel for their baggage and let them know walk times.

Touchpoints

Beacons could also speed up passenger processing at critical touchpoints – such as check-in, bag drop, passport control and departure gates.

The can act as a trigger to ‘pull’ the passenger’s mobile boarding pass onto the smartphone display for scanning. The SITA Lab has actively investigated this area explains O’Sullivan.

“Working with an airline we placed beacons around a major international airport and used Apple’s beacon system (iBeacon) with its Passbook mobile wallet to display a personalized welcome message to passengers as they passed the different zones that require a boarding pass to be shown.”

SITA is also working on a trial with Copenhagen Airport that uses beacons to trigger the airport’s app on the passenger’s phone.

The passenger can then subscribe for notifications, such as gate changes and flight status messages, throughout the airport, as well as commercial messages.

Hype or reality?

It’s through these types of trials with airlines and airports that the SITA Lab has acquired real world experience on the benefits and limitations of beacon technology.

The tests were conducted with the iPhone 5s and a number of beacons from different manufacturers and their main findings published in a SITA Insight Paper.

Commenting on the trial results, SITA’s Chief Technology Officer and the Head of SITA Lab, Jim Peters, believes the relatively low cost of beacons makes them an attractive option for airports. But he cautions against a gold rush approach to deploying them.

“It’s clear from our initial research 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.”

Coordinated approach

“We expect there to be many common use cases, which will likely mean a minimum level of beacon deployment to ensure some standard of continuity of services between airports.”

“It will be a very distributed network – too costly for every airport to independently manage access to each airline and their app developers,” says Peters.

Another part of the issue is potential interference with other wireless infrastructure at airports if deployments are not managed in a coordinated and controlled way.

With both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi using the same 2.4GHz range, there’s a danger that too many badly installed beacons will cause unintended disruption to other wireless systems.

As SITA Radio Engineer, Tobias Food, puts it: “Airports will need to have clear visibility of where beacons are being deployed and how.”

Common-use

SITA’s approach is to set up a centrally managed and air transportation-specific registry of beacons so that beacons can be operated using the same common-use approach that’s proved so successful with other shared services and infrastructure (see ‘Sharing the benefits – a common-use registry’).

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.

Let's ensure innovation

Airports could make beacon deployments within shared areas of the terminal and make the data sets available to airlines or other industry third-parties through the registry.

Airlines could also deploy their own beacons in dedicated areas of the airport and use the registry to provide visibility to the airport, in case of operational issues.

Without an industry approach, the potential to use beacons to innovate passenger services could be stifled. There would be significant added cost and complexity if everyone goes it alone.

Beacons treated as a common use infrastructure would mean the sum of the whole will be greater than each of the parts and would allow for the greatest flexibility for the industry to innovate.

Sharing the benefits – a common-use registry

The SITA Lab has set up a registry of common-use beacons for the air transport industry to reduce the cost and complexity of deployments, as well as promote the use of common standards for beacons across the industry.

 

    • 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.

 

    • It will also provide tools to airport operators and beacon owners to give visibility and track beacons. This can be particularly important for airport operators needing to manage their wireless spectrum and ensure there is no radio interference with existing Wi-Fi access points.

 

Other advantages of a centralized registry for the industry include:

 

Airlines will find management of beacons on a global scale far simpler than trying to do it themselves. The common standards will ensure their apps and partner airline apps will work with beacons across their whole route network.

 

Airports currently deploying beacons, or planning to do so, can use the registry to store, track and make available the beacon-specific data (known as the meta-data) with all stakeholders at the airport.

 

The airport would have the ability to set and modify the meta-data. This would include longitude/latitude, as well as scenario specific data, such as terminal and gate information.

App developers will be able to register on developer.aero and get access to the list of beacons at an airport, and the meta-data for those beacons in order to develop proximity information for passengers at airports.

 

The standard beacon types and data definitions will facilitate and stimulate further innovation among the developer community, knowing that a single application will work industry wide.

 

Beacon owners, such as airlines, airports or ground handlers, will be able to use the registry to manage their beacon infrastructure and track where they are placed in an airport.

 

For more, go to www.developer.aero/beaconregistry/ or contact Lead Engineer, Kevin O'Sullivan at kevin.osullivan@sita.aero.

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