Reach for the stratosphere

Reach for the stratosphere

From the ground upwards, innovation ideas in air travel appear to have no limit. 

As an aspiration for innovators, the stratosphere is often used as a metaphor, but for some it has a more literal meaning, as a day with the SITA Lab team looking at what’s on the edge of the IT radar proved.

A solar future?

In fact, first we hear about two different ventures that are pushing back the boundaries of what’s possible from harnessing the sun’s energy.

Speaking to the SITA Lab’s Stephane Cheikh, who's deeply involved in SITA Ventures – an initiative focused on investing in early stage travel related start-ups – while both of these solar venturists conjure up a distinctly sci-fi vision of the future, the reality is that their goals are not actually that far away.

SolarStratos, the first, aims to open the door on commercial electrical or solar aviation on the edge of space for private passengers and scientists. In doing so, SolarStratos will be the first commercial two-seater solar plane in history.

Perhaps more importantly, it heralds the beginning of a much longer term vision to develop more environmentally friendly forms of air travel, using electrical powered aircraft.

As venture leader Raphaël Domjan notes, improvements in battery power and storage could lead to short-haul flights, such as Geneva-Paris, carrying 10 passengers within 15-20 years.

Drones in space

The ability to store the sun’s energy is equally critical to a development idea conceived at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) innovation park. Independent startup OpenStratosphere is aiming to build and operate regional fleets of drones in the stratosphere using 100% solar energy.

The expectation is that solar and battery technology would allow the drones to move slowly around the same area in near space for around six months, before returning to earth, thereby providing a cheap alternative for some satellite use cases.

For instance, the around-the-clock earth observation could provide a flexible environmentally friendly intelligence and communication infrastructure for governments.

Validation missions are due to take place in 2017 with production ramp-up in 2020. “It’s likely to light the touch-paper on issues around regulation and ownership of near space,” says Cheikh.

Fly it yourself!

What if flying was made as easy as driving a car? It may still seem a fanciful idea, but there’s a surprisingly sizable group of people seriously looking at this...

Stephane Cheikh, Innovation Manager, SITA


What if flying was made as easy as driving a car? It may still seem a fanciful idea, but there’s a surprisingly sizable group of people seriously looking at this, including companies such as Airbus and Uber.

Even the European Union has been funding research projects, such as myCopter, in this area, according to Cheikh. One team that’s participated in the European project was the Max Planck Institute, Germany’s foremost research organization.

Pats and pavs

One area the Institute has been involved in is with Personal Aerial Transportation Systems (PATS) to help overcome ground-based vehicle congestion.

The PATS would be based on Personal Aerial Vehicles (PAVs) for use by the public in commuting between work and home. PAVs would fly at low altitude and be fully or partially autonomous using algorithms for vision based control and navigation. There would be no requirement for ground-based air traffic control.

The development of PAVs is likely to follow the path of the automotive industry in developing self-driving cars. New automation technologies for obstacle avoidance, path planning and movement in close formation could have potential for use in and around airports and other aviation applications.

Headset tech

“Exploring the promise of wearables is another area of innovation, one in which the SITA Lab has pioneered,” says Cheikh. “The potential is vast.”

For example, think about the noise, dirt and weather making the airport apron area a hostile environment for a lot of sensitive tech. The impact of those factors could now be a thing of the past if the industry can successfully exploit the potential of augmented reality headsets.

One company looking at this is IdentityMine. Its team was part of the first wave of developers trained on Microsoft’s HoloLens 3D augmented reality headset technology.

The device is standalone with no wires and no phones involved and controlled by gestures and voice. Its standout feature is its 3D modelling capabilities that makes objects appear as part of your real surroundings.

3D models

As Cheikh points out: “These types of headset have a distinct edge over existing mobile technologies, such as tablets, when it comes to hands-free computing and therefore could provide numerous productivity enhancing opportunities for air transports roaming workforce.”

For example, the 3D modelling could make it safer, quicker and less prone to error for an aircraft mechanic to perform step-by-step replacement of parts, while having both hands free to do the work.

A ‘pinning’ feature, which allows the wearer to lock the 3D model in place and move around it to view it from different angles could also have advantages for repairs in difficult to access places.

Another plus-point is the context-aware capabilities, which can deliver relevant information and notifications to the wearer without the need to explicitly ‘pull’ it. This could help speed up time-sensitive and event-driven tasks, such as aircraft turnaround.

SkyLights Bravo Theatre

Taking headset innovation up in the air is Paris based Skylights. It aims to disrupt the in-flight entertainment (IFE) market with its Virtual Reality (VR) headset called 'SkyLights Bravo Theatre', which allows passengers to immerse themselves into their own movie theater environment, free from the distractions associated with watching seatback screens.

The headset weighs in at 280g including a built-in screen that plays 2D, 3D and VR videos in high resolution. It’s fully autonomous, in terms of both video feed and power.

Skylights has been working with several airlines in Europe, including Air France-KLM and leisure carrier XL Airways, as well as private jet operators.

AI advances

Despite the doomsday storylines, AI is starting to seep into our everyday life and we will see its encroaching impact of the air transport industry.

Stephane Cheikh, Innovation Manager, SITA


Of course, the advance of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being much vaunted in forums across the world. “Despite the doomsday storylines, AI is starting to seep into our everyday life and we will see its encroaching impact of the air transport industry,” says Cheikh.

Major tech players such as Google are pouring big money into the technology. In 2014, Google acquired API.AI. Its vision is to make technology understand and speak human language and help developers build intelligent conversational interfaces (‘Siri-esque’) for their products and services.

Voice communication can be the fastest and most convenient means of interaction, especially when a person is on the move, so this marks another step in the development of chatbots with a more human conversational feel.

It will enable travel providers to offer personal concierge style services through their mobile app from dealing with a wide range of customer service issues to proactively sorting out travel disruption through to filing lost luggage reports and booking onward travel.

Human element

New York startup 30SecondsToFly is also using AI technology to put the human element back into travel planning. Its travel management software, called CLAIRE, uses AI to act as a virtual assistant and learn about user preferences.

Using a natural language interface and machine learning allows the user to have a freer flowing experience during the booking process, providing a level of personalization and customer care lost with more mechanical-driven apps and websites. 

It also automates and manages travel for employees, booking policy-compliant trips and proactively solving any problems that may come up during the journey.

Byte-size cloud

Mobile apps have spawned a whole new cloud ecosystem. Amazon is looking to tap into this market with its Amazon Web Services (AWS) Lambda cloud-based, server-less computing service. The service enables apps to be run and managed in a cloud environment at the code level.

In practice this means mobile apps can be broken down into byte sized pieces by separating out the functionality into small self-contained programs. These functions can then be scaled and run individually on demand.

For instance, if one function on the app generates 90% of traffic, that one function can be distributed and scaled much easier than scaling out the entire app.

The advantage of server-less computing is that you get the benefits of cloud computing (pay-as-you-go, IT infrastructure on demand) at the app feature level.

By de-coupling the features and therefore the dependencies, the overall app is also more fault tolerant. If one feature goes down it doesn’t bring down the whole app.

From a developer perspective, AWS Lambda allows you to build complex systems very quickly and spend most of the time focusing on coding the core business problem rather than the IT infrastructure needed to run it.

In addition, innovation of the app is faster, with discrete enhancements at the feature level built and tested in isolation from the rest of the app.


Then there’s ‘the blockchain’. “Blockchain is one of the hottest technologies around today,” according to Cheikh. “It’s still working its way towards what Gartner might term its ‘peak of inflated expectations’. But venture capitalists are falling over themselves to invest money in startups innovating with the technology.”

One such company, Monax Industries has developed an open source platform called Eris that can be used for automating processes that require a contractual framework.

The platform sits on blockchain technology, a distributed ledger system, to ensure data integrity and transparency throughout the process.

This could have value within the air transport industry where data sharing across multiple industry entities, including airlines, airport operators, ground handlers, travel distribution companies, air traffic management and government agencies, is increasingly common.

Using blockchain ensures data integrity and transparency, while the smart contracts ensure process compliance.

The SITA Lab is already looking at several use cases for blockchain, particularly in relation to passenger identification and authentication during steps of the journey. See our last issue, ‘The advent of the token’ and ‘Let's get smart about identity’.


Other players in the travel market are using the data security aspects of blockchain to build new innovative businesses.

New York-based Loyyal, for instance, has developed a universal loyalty and rewards platform. The startup aims to unite the fragmented loyalty industry by making it easy and safe for multiple loyalty programs to join forces under a single banner scheme.

The platform is built on blockchain for added security to stop fraudulent transfer of rewards or points, while also using AI technology to track program members’ preferences and develop more personalized and meaningful interactions based on the members’ lifestyle. What one program member is offered to redeem points will be different from another member.

Use cases

What’s clear is that within air travel there’s no shortage of new technologies and the many ideas around them, as the SITA Lab has found. “It’s a pioneering time,” concludes Cheikh.

“Major transformational technologies such as cloud, mobile, big data, AI and VR are enabling new strands of innovation to splinter off in multiple directions. The critical task is to identify which ones can benefit the air travel industry. That’s our task in the SITA Lab.”

Apr 2017