"Beacons are 'gateway to the Internet of Things’, where everything that can be connected will be connected, for the purposes of communicating, tracking, monitoring, measuring and more."
Kevin O’Sullivan, SITA Lab’s Principal Solution Architect
Why is it that small, low powered transmitters of Bluetooth signals are causing such a stir in the air transport industry?
“Because of their promise to get important data straight into the hands of passengers and staff right across the journey,” says Kevin O’Sullivan, SITA Lab’s Principal Solution Architect.
“As a breakthrough in geo-location and proximity technologies, beacons are location-aware. So when a mobile device with Bluetooth enabled moves into range they can trigger web services on the app that are relevant to that location,” he explains.
“Essentially this means airlines or airports can contextualize the information they send to the passenger making it more relevant and useful.
“Their big promise is that they’ll greatly improve the passenger experience and facilitation. But on top of that we’ll see greater efficiencies at the airport."
That’s why location technologies are a high priority among airports, who place passenger processing at the top of their investment agendas, according to SITA’s 2015 Airport IT Trends Survey.
In fact, beacons are an important tool in the location technology kitbag – which today includes Wi-Fi triangulation, Indoor GPS and now Bluetooth – presenting huge opportunities to communicate via passengers’ smartphones.
They’ve been described as the ‘gateway to the Internet of Things’, where everything that can be connected will be connected, for the purposes of communicating, tracking, monitoring, measuring and more.
The promise of beacons explains why beacon trials and proof of concepts are taking place among a Who’s Who of the world’s leading airports and airlines.
Among them – in addition to leaders in the field Miami International Airport – are American Airlines-Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, United Airlines and Hong Kong International Airport.
All in all, at least 20 other trials are underway among those eager to exploit beacon technology to trigger displays of location-relevant information on devices at the right time and in the right situation.
American Airlines achieved a first well over a year ago with the industry’s largest deployment of beacons at that time, with a six-month pilot at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, as a precursor to a permanent implementation.
The airline worked with SITA to use beacon location detection to enhance its mobile app and give passengers accurate way-finding information. As part of the trial, American Airlines was the first airline to use the SITA Common-use Beacon Registry.
Others leading the charge include Singapore and United Airlines , who are using beacons in relation to passenger location. In conjunction with Singapore Airlines and mobile app vendor MTT, the SITA Lab deployed 30 beacons around the airline’s lounge in Terminal 3 of Changi Airport.
A mobile app was designed to show the location of passengers within the lounge enabling staff to quickly locate them should they be late for a flight.
United Airlines meanwhile has deployed beacons at Newark Liberty Airport to test the indoor location technology for pinpointing a traveler’s location within the airport.
Using the airline’s app, passengers can see their location on an interactive map of the airport and get directions to various locations including the gate, nearby airport vendors and services such as restaurants, ATM locations or family restrooms.
For airports, there’s a promising range of uses. The SITA Lab works with Miami International Airport to deploy over 230 beacons covering entrances, check-in, gates, baggage claim and valet parking zones throughout the airport in just two days.
The beacons are available to airlines, retailers and other partners via SITA’s common-use Beacon Registry. They allow useful content to be triggered on a passenger’s or staff’s mobile device as they pass through the airport.
Way-finding is a recurring use. A proof of concept was conducted with a major international airport to evaluate the use of interactive maps for way-finding and searching for retail and airport facilities.
Other beacon use cases tested were for triggering relevant notification messages at airport checkpoints, as well as evaluating data feeds, into the airport’s app to provide different information to the passenger depending on their location.
It included departure/arrival flight list, flight status, gate info, and baggage belt for arriving passengers.
In the case of Hong Kong International Airport, the 50 or so beacons deployed in its Terminal 1 are also to help with way-finding, using best-in-class interactive maps on passengers’ mobile phones and tablets.
This will guide passengers along typical pathways between public transport points, check-in counters, immigration, automated people mover, boarding/arrival gates and baggage claim areas.
The maps displayed information such as time to gate, as well as information about shops, restaurants and retail offers along the way. Also high on the agenda is the provision of information about shops, restaurants and retail offers.
“Hong Kong International Airport puts huge emphasis on the passenger experience. It’s no surprise that it’s one of the first airports in the region to work with SITA Lab to adopt such an innovative approach to help passengers make the most of their time in the airport,” according to Ilya Gutlin, SITA President, Asia Pacific.
With the potential for the proliferation of beacons, it’s important to avoid wasteful duplication of deployments, while ensuring consistency and efficiency at the airport.
As part of its role of providing value to the air transport community, SITA’s Common-Use Beacon Registry offers shared infrastructure to airlines, retailers and other service-providers across the world for beacon-based services.
As well as avoiding duplication and reducing the cost of installing beacons, the IT is simpler and eliminates the need for everyone to manage their own beacons.
Already, more than 30 airports and airlines are testing the SITA registry, with other initiatives including a beacons Task Force established by ACI/IATA, under the WAITSC®ACI World IT Standing Committee© with a goal to provide a Recommended Practice on Beacons, including registry.
The registry is beacon vendor agnostic and will ensure beacons use a common form of data sets based on industry standards.
It 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.
“Given the promise of beacons, this common-use approach solves the problem of multiple airlines wanting to install separate beacons at an airport’s shared gates,” says Irminger.
“It also solves the problem of connecting multiple airports’ beacons together in a cohesive and easily accessible way.”
Until recently, beacons have been solely an Apple phenomenon. With the introduction of the Eddystone standard, Google joins Apple as a major player in the market, confirming the importance of beacons in the location technologies tool kit.
Eddystone offers an open format, cross-platform beacon solution for both Android and iOS. Eddystone and Apple’s iBeacons are both technologies that will co-exist, and they are joined by Samsung’s Placedge.
“The launch of Google’s Eddystone confirms to everybody that beacons are here to stay,” says SITA Lab’s Lead Engineer Kevin O’Sullivan. “When you have Apple, Google and Samsung all trying to use beacons to solve the indoor proximity problem you know that the technology has got a future.
“Eddystone is not an ‘iBeacon killer’, though,” he says. “I think the two technologies are here to stay.”
Google’s Eddystone has helped promote the idea of the physical web, because it supports the transmission of URLs that can be opened in a Web browser, unlike Apple’s iBeacons, which transmit Unique Universal Identifiers (UUIDs) that are detected only by apps.
This is seen as a useful advantage with the Google indoor proximity solution because it can contextually target those who’ve not necessarily downloaded the airport or airline app, and its very existence will encourage further interest and initiatives for driving contextual experience.
This promises further benefits, giving rise to a myriad potential use cases, such as providing passengers with basic departure or arrival schedules depending on where they entered the airport. It could point to a website so passengers without the mobile app can still get some key day of travel information.