Our digital and physical worlds collide - beacons

Our digital and physical worlds collide - beacons

Our digital and physical worlds collide - beacons

We’re witnessing the collision of our digital and physical worlds at the airport terminal as Bluetooth beacons begin to change customer experiences at venues around the globe. So what are the implications for airports? By Steve Statler, author of ‘Beacon Technologies: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Beacosystem’.

As the boundaries between our digital and physical worlds collapse, airports are at the center of an opportunity to change the customer experience. And it’s beacon technology that’s taking center stage.

Disruptive potential

It used to be that computers were locked up in metal boxes, hidden away in secure data centers. That computational power has now escaped from those boxes. Kids carry in their pockets computing power that once required an entire building to sustain it.

The output from computers has spread beyond green bar-striped paper printouts to web connected smartwatches, augmented reality headsets and 3D printers. And as for the inputs, they’re extending too, moving beyond the keyboard to voice recognition, machine vision and of course, the Bluetooth beacon.

Beacon technology flies under the radar for most of people, but beacons have at least the same disruptive potential as any of these other technologies.

Here and now

Bluetooth beacons don’t pair with your smartphone, although they do take advantage of the same chipset that your Bluetooth headset may use to talk to your handset. That ability to use existing Bluetooth interfaces to talk to the billion-plus smartphones in use today is key. 

With deep hooks into Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems, this is not a technology future, it’s here today. Beacons are low cost, can be as small as a thumb nail and are starting to be sprinkled in their hundreds around venues such as shops, sports stadia and, of course, airports.

Their ability to run on batteries for years, is key to making their deployment less expensive than other technology infrastructure which needs power and network cables to operate. 

As the boundaries between our digital and physical worlds collapse, airports are at the center of an opportunity to change the customer experience. And it’s beacon technology that’s taking center stage.

Steve Statler, Author of ‘Beacon Technologies: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Beacosystem’

Trigger power

Beacons are simple. They have the ability to trigger actions in apps running on smartphones when those phones come into proximity with the beacon. Bluetooth beacons are like tiny wireless lighthouses. They broadcast signals that can help with map navigation indoors. 

They also trigger alerts that can wake up a mobile app that has been exited days before.  Beacon-enabled apps, like zombies, can be brought back to life. This ability makes the technology different to many other types of location or proximity trigger.

Rather than creating a path of zombie destruction, they can be used to present a boarding pass, a welcome message, to open a door to a club lounge, or trigger a video describing a work of art that the airport has commissioned.

It used to be that Google and Apple maps stopped working once you went inside a building.  When the signals from GPS satellites can’t penetrate into buildings, the old versions of maps stopped working. Now these tiny Bluetooth beacons can enable Google and Apple maps to operate with even better fidelity than outdoors.

Tracking power

The major US wireless carriers are starting to build a National Emergency Address Database (NEAD) to track what could ultimately be billions of beacons. This will make the location information that goes to 911 call centers more accurate.

Emergency calls will no longer arrive with an approximate (and often misleading) latitude / longitude coordinate. 

With NEAD, first responders will be supplied with a much more accurate ’dispatchable address‘, which includes the floor of the building where the call is coming from. Given how disorientated visitors can be, this will be a real benefit to airports.

Mitigating insurance liability may justify an investment in beacons for 911 response, irrespective of other motivations.

Convergence: Digital-physical

Let’s take a step back for a moment and consider the implications of the digital to physical convergence trend which beacons underpin. Bluetooth beacons are like tendons that link the muscle of the digital world to the bones of our bricks and mortar buildings.

They enable new ’experiences‘ to be designed. Most sports stadia have deployed beacons because they’re competing with your sofa and high definition TV to deliver a visitor ’experience’.

Everything that Amazon could do on its website can now be applied to the experience of visitors to physical locations, like airports. Consider some of the things that make Amazon special. Personalization is key. Your Amazon home page will look different to mine. 

Beacons placed next to digital displays can trigger a personal welcome. Airport visitors might be freaked out if their airline app triggered a personal welcome on displays at the check-in desk, but relevant information to their phone would be useful.

Advertisers certainly would appreciate the opportunity to adjust messages and products promoted on the screens in airports based on who is nearby. Displays in duty free could promote aftershave to men and perfume to women.

Sense and convenience

Personalization is only as good as the information about the visitor. Amazon understands your interests by analyzing your click-stream, your movements around its website. Beacons are like digital cookies in the real world.

They can sense if you’re a returning visitor and can be used to track your footpath around stores (rather than click-path) and your dwell time. This information about your dwell time near certain products can help to give clues as to your interests.

Another aspect of what makes Amazon convenient is one-click checkout. Beacons can enable this too. Imagine a passenger with hands full, approaching a coffee bar and being greeted by name, offered their ’usual’ and being able to take their drink without having to dig for their purse or phone.

Beacons can be used to enable no-click checkout for small ticket items. They can trigger a customer’s photo and profile to appear on a tablet at the point of sale. Payment is confirmed verbally and the transaction completes faster than is possible even with Apple Pay.

More efficient

Beacons can enable operational efficiencies. Many beacons include a temperature sensor and can be used for better monitoring of room temperatures, adjusting HVAC for energy savings. 

Having a detailed view of where passengers are in the terminal has the potential to provide better ways of getting them in their seats on time.

Airlines can direct stray passengers to the right gate, if they’re waiting in the wrong place.  They can also make better decisions about when to delay an aircraft to accommodate a passenger who is on their way and when to leave without them.

While plenty of airports from Miami, San Diego, Chicago and Schiphol are already deploying beacons, they’re also being deployed in other locations ─ from London buses triggering reminders for people engrossed in a book that their stop is coming up, to welcome messages to Apple store visitors or information for conference goers about LinkedIn profiles of other delegates in a breakout session. 

Imagine never having to struggle to remember an former colleague’s name. It will appear automatically on your Apple Watch.

Fad that won't fly?

High tech innovation can sometimes be fads that don’t fly. But will beacons be here to stay? Is it worth our time planning to use them for our airport? Yes, it’s worth it. Over three hundred companies are betting the answer is yes.

One of them is Apple, who created the iBeacon standard that enables its iPhones. Another is Google, who have leapfrogged Apple with their own standard, Eddystone, named after the first offshore lighthouse.

Google have integrated beacons into Android, Maps, the Chrome browser, and their personal assistant app. It’s clear that having your phone know what store you’re in, or near, will make the ads that fuel Google’s massive revenue stream even more valuable.

ABI, one of the leading technology analysts, predicts that we will see over 300 million beacons deployed by 2020.  Gartner predict even more.

An answer for airports

At Google’s recent developer conference, they announced something that will prompt users to download more beacon enabled apps. Up until this point users have been blind to the presence of beacons unless they had downloaded an app that was beacon enabled.  

Now Android will look for the presence of beacons and prompt users to download the corresponding app that has been registered to use beacons in the vicinity. This could be a powerful answer to the airport’s challenge of how to get passengers to download their apps.

So what to do?

No doubt beacons can help make airport operations more efficient, potentially reducing insurance costs and enhancing the passenger experience, not to mention opening up new revenue opportunities. But how do you get started?

On its own, buying a few hundred beacons, liberally sprinkling them around, pinning them to the walls of your terminal is not likely to work. A structured blueprint is required. Technology management issues abound.

Using the right standards will be key if apps from different airlines, concessions and ticket agencies are to work together with your beacons.

When writing the book ’Beacon Technologies: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Beacosystem’, my aim was to create a survival guide for developers of beacon solutions trying to master the Rubik's Cube of technology selection, design, deployment, management, privacy and monetization.

To that end we chose to look in detail at what SITA has done to create one of the world’s first Beacon Networks with the SITA Common Use Beacon Registry. SITA has done a great job of considering the myriad uses of beacons and creating a system to manage these devices.  They maintain the information needed to make beacons useful.

For example, feeds from its other systems are integrated so that a beacon by a gate doesn’t just announce its ID, but unlocks information about the status of the plane that’s arriving there.

Critical standards

By having standard interfaces that all stakeholders can use to leverage these systems, apps that work in one airport are well positioned to work in other airports.

This is essential if passengers are to have the indoor location features of their airline’s apps work in both Dallas and Miami, not to mention other airports across the globe.

With the right monitoring and deployment tools, beacons can be put in place and monitored, minimizing overheads in terms of airport staff time. 

As an industry, this allows airports to prepare to balance one of the biggest challenges with beacons ─ deciding which apps are allowed to see the airport’s beacons. On one hand there’s a need to open up beacon access to applications like ’maps‘, making everyone’s phones work better indoors.


On the other, there’s a major revenue opportunity in the control of access so that commercial brands ’pay to play’. Luxury brands that are interested in engaging customers near relevant concessions, should do their part to cover the cost of this common use infrastructure. 

The ability to control which brand has access to the airport’s beacons is central to being able to charge for access. Beacon access should also be controlled so that this infrastructure isn’t abused. We won’t delve deep into the issues of privacy here, but any system needs to ensure that visitors are aware of the use of indoor location tracking.

Passengers need to have the ability to control their personal information. These issues can only be managed through beacon networks designed with privacy and commerce in mind.

Power and inevitability

Like the collision between matter and anti-matter, the convergence between our physical and digital worlds is unlocking great power.

Given the use of smartphones by travelers and the investment in apps by travel providers, the question isn’t whether this is going to happen, it’s whether we will manage the unlocking of this energy so that the outcome is positive.  

SITA has done a lot to create a framework which will provide a foundation to do that. Over a dozen leading airports have already deployed SITA’s system. If the industry can align around it, there’s every opportunity for this part of the rapidly changing landscape to be a positive one.


Steve Statler is a writer, public speaker and consultant working in the beacon ecosystem. He trains and advises airports, retailers and venture capitalists, as well as makers of beacon software and hardware. He has also consulted for San Diego International Airport to create their successful carbon offsetting program The Good Traveler. His book ‘Beacon Technologies: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Beacosystem’ is available from Amazon at www.hhgb.us.

Subscribe to the Air Transport IT Review