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Waves of the future: airports and the IoT

Published on  01 September by Catherine Mayer , Vice President, SITA
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Earlier today, I had the pleasure of speaking at the 2015 ACI World and Latin America-Caribbean Conference.

I was part of a panel discussing waves of the future in air transport and how airports will cater to the next generation of air travelers, known as “Tweenials.” This generation of digital natives is growing up on swipe screens and selfies – not to mention a host of other technologies we can’t even imagine yet.

It’s a heady and ambitious task: trying to conceive the future and what it will look like. It’s easy to get carried away. But if we take a step back and look at the technology trends of the past, how many of them were predicted decades in advance? Did anyone, for example, recognize the potential impact of what’s been the most disruptive manmade technology: the mobile Internet? Or that today’s passenger would process themselves through self-service, performed on smart devices, mainly off airport?

The processing power of computers has been increasing for decades, of course. However we don’t actually benefit from their potential until they are integrated with sensors and other computers via the Internet, streaming data in real-time.   

Sensors embedded in everyday objects and installed everywhere that gather information and send it to computers creating a massive network, frees computers from their isolation. It brings them into the living world.

This is the realm of the Internet of Things (IoT), a term first authored in 1999 by Kevin Ashton. The IoT, along with the processing power of computers, is so powerful that it is transforming reality as we know it, including algorithms that will be able to predict “what you want even before you know what you want.”

Transformation is the key. Because that’s the experience the next generation of air travelers will expect – to be transformed – virtually through the digital world or in reality via entertainment while traveling on a new supersonic airplane.

How will airports help to provide this experience?

To start, we shouldn’t be in the business of trying to guess what the disruptive technologies will be 30 years from now. It’s folly for us to try. Instead, we should start by leveraging the technologies we already know, including the IoT.

We should also take the same approach with people. Instead of gazing into the future to guess what the Tweenials will be doing in 30 years, we should focus on the largest demographic that will be traveling over the next 20 years and leading the technology trends for the next 10-15 years: the Millennials. By understanding their technology habits, airports can be better prepared for the Tweenials.

With these two tips in mind, airports can make some pretty significant advances.

Knowing that we live in a connected world today and that smart devices and sensors will continue to proliferate, it’s easy to imagine that in another 30 years, there will be hundreds of billions of connected devices, collecting and sending data via the Internet.

To get the most out of the technology over the coming decades and properly respond to passengers’ changing demands, we should create an Air Transport Industry (ATI) Internet of Things. It will generate huge amounts of data from the systems deployed both airside and landside, on and off airport, to monitor and track assets, passengers, baggage, and aircraft.

In order to leverage the massive amount of data created in the ATI IoT, we need to apply Business Intelligence (BI) software. Airports (and airlines) should use historical and real-time data to monitor, measure, improve and predict all sorts of scenarios – and most importantly, share this information and collaborate with their stakeholders, preventing anyone from being standalone or isolated. 

And as the connected world expands over the next three or four decades, airports will need to accommodate all sorts of technologies not common in today’s terminals, such as bionic implants and wearables, drones, augmented and virtual realities, even robot companions and pets. We’ll have to cater to the next generation of Tweenials, who will know these technologies as a normal part of everyday life. And when they travel they will expect to be transformed and entertained every step of the way. It won’t be enough for an airport to create a sense of place, but rather it will be necessary to engage with them in new and creative ways if we hope to meet their expectations.

But we can’t run before we walk. We need to start with the known and build from there. That’s the only way we’ll evolve and ensure we’ll be able to accommodate the next generation of passengers traveling through airports.

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