Believe the hype and we’re at the start of a new information age. An age that will see the proliferation of smart objects and devices drive massive gains in efficiency, deliver greater value to customers and staff, and enable new business models.

The number of devices collecting and exchanging data has grown significantly over the last few years. Some reports suggest that connected devices will surpass 15 billion in 2015 and reach over 50 billion by 2020.

Most of the buzz is around the consumer sector. However, there’s good reason for air transport businesses to start getting excited, not least because we’re starting to see alignment in many of the core enablers.

Embedded sensors

Placing sensors in objects allows them to be controlled, gather data and connect to other things. Just in the last few years there’s been a leap forward in technological capabilities of sensors.

Typical smart watches, for instance, can include 1-gigahertz dual-core processors and combine gyroscopes and accelerometers.

Connectivity

Widespread wireless connectivity has already been a significant contributor to the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) using either cellular networks or Wi-Fi.

Low-power, wide-area networks, known as LPWANs, are also starting to emerge, which improve the business case for low bandwidth sensors.

These tap an unlicensed wireless spectrum known as the industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) radio band allowing sensors to be connected over distances of more than 100km and powered over 10 years with AA batteries.

In addition, they’re highly secure, using AES128 encryption keys.

Cloud

The widespread use of cloud computing provides the single platform that can handle and integrate all the data sources, including people, with the processes and systems.

And that power is now being backed up by storage systems capable of holding petabytes of data and serving it up rapidly.

Factor in data analytics and today data that was the preserve of a few can be turned into useful information and distributed to millions in minutes.

At the moment it’s still early days. But to make the most of a smart, connected world, we need to identify specific IoT use cases that will bring our industry operational or customer service improvements.

Smart airport cities

Airports are taking their cue from the smart city concept. Under this, advances in technology and data collection are being used to get real-time information on the surrounding environment.

That information can then be used to make efficiency gains or improve the lives of people through better services.

By embedding sensors throughout the airport environment it’s expected to improve airport operations and enhance the passenger experience.

Schiphol

One airport at the forefront is Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. It’s working with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and Dutch start-up, Undagrid, to track and trace non-motorized mobile assets, such as aircraft stairs and baggage carts using embedded sensors that make them visible to operators via the cloud or a dashboard.

However, most projects are currently small scale trials used to gain knowledge on what might be possible.

Miami International Airport, for example, worked with SITA to install beacons around its terminals with temperature sensors. By analyzing the data the airport could potentially optimize air flow and reduce energy consumption. 

Silo Busting

Arnaud Brolly, a SITA communications specialist, has worked on several IoT projects, along with partner companies.

He believes that by integrating, optimizing and analyzing the data from multiple airport building and operational systems we can develop new types of smart applications and services for passengers, airlines and airports.

“Today a lot of data is extracted from a single system in isolation. By taking the data out of its silo and combining with other sources it becomes far more valuable.

“We can see interdependencies that were not visible before, allowing us to build algorithms and develop new applications,” says Brolly.

Accurate

He continues: “For example, passengers will be able to get accurate information, such as queue lengths and time to gate, from these smart systems using mobile apps, watches and, further down the line, other wearables.

Airport operators will also be able to proactively manage using dashboards. It will enable better decision making and faster reaction to unfolding events.”

Brolly sees automation benefits from the rise of IoT. “With machines speaking to each other, it will eliminate the need for human intervention in mundane decision making.

“That might include slight adjustments to temperature in particular areas of the terminal, or checking the fire extinguishers are still located where they should be. Instead staff will only receive exception notifications allowing them to focus on more critical tasks.”

Airline Opportunities

Airlines are waking up to the potential. SITA’s 2015 Airline IT Trends Survey indicated that 86% of airline CIOs believe there are clear benefits to be had from the IoT over the next three years

In the meantime, 37% have allocated budget for the implementation of IoT projects. Much of the investment is earmarked for personalization to passengers and getting better utilization of aircraft.

For example, SITA worked with easyJet and its partner Gatwick Airport to launch an app for passengers called Mobile Host. By taking live data feeds from airport and airline systems and overlaying location details on Google indoor maps, the airline is able to offer personalized notifications and updates.

Gateway

One gateway technology for IoT is beacons. Placing them throughout airports can trigger an action on the mobile device of a passenger as they pass within range.

This could be notifications like time to gate or change to flight status, or even displaying the mobile boarding pass on the mobile’s screen. Importantly it means the passenger can be given the right information at the right time.

The airline would also know how far away the passenger is, helping it make better informed decisions about when to wait and when to close the aircraft door.

Smart bags

Another opportunity is to relieve the anxiety felt by passengers about whether their bags made the flight.

Airlines are looking at smart bag tags which would allow passengers to track their bags through a mobile app. It could even let passengers know which carousel to collect their baggage from and how long it will be.  

MRO

There are also Maintenance, repair and Operations (MRO) opportunities. Real-time data from the aircraft means maintenance can be performed when the aircraft actually needs it rather than based on pre-determined schedules.

By analyzing the data mid-flight rather than waiting to download upon landing, operational staff can alter flight paths to avoid bad weather.

They can take advantage of better winds on a slightly different course and set up maintenance actions on the ground so that crews are equipped with the correct parts in advance of the aircraft’s arrival. Systems will also be able to notify suppliers of parts that need to be re-ordered.

Infrastructure

Nonetheless, without a reliable and secure network connection to power the potentially large number of devices, IoT will fail to deliver value.

Existing communication networks, such as cellular and Wi-Fi, either lack the wide coverage or are not cost effective for some airline use cases, where objects travel over long distances.

A number of alternatives are beginning to emerge, including LoRa and Wi-Fi (802.11 AF) networks. These have lower costs than existing solutions improving the business case for adding sensors to a number of potential objects, which should help accelerate IoT deployments within the industry.

Low cost

The SITA Lab has been working with SIGFOX, an LPWAN operator, to evaluate low cost infrastructure for the IoT. The company operates a global network that provides two-way secure communications for devices and objects needing only a low data throughput.

The network operates in the globally available ISM bands (license-free frequency bands), where interference and capacity constraints are not an issue.

Kevin O'Sullivan, SITA Lab’s lead on the project, believes low power networks could open the door for IoT within air transport.

“One antenna and base station can cover the whole airport campus so an LPWAN network could be a viable alternative for sending low bandwidth messages. Distances between base stations can be as much as 100km,” he says.

He continues. “As data throughput is small it is ideally suited to low bandwidth use cases where objects may only periodically need to transmit a limited data set. One example could be a bag tag indicating its location from time to time, which would be picked up by the network at the departure and arrival airports.”

Value driver: data

The IoT is going to greatly expand big data. However, ownership of the data sources will be spread across a varied group of stakeholders.

The next step for our industry is to eliminate the silos so that data from passengers and operations can be aggregated and shared to unlock the value.

Doing this will spur innovation and create completely new types of applications and services for passengers and staff along the value chain.

In addition, the information that devices and sensors gather will give machines the ability to communicate directly with each other and learn as they go along. This is where O’Sullivan sees the real value.

“The data provided by these sensors will become even more useful when we apply algorithms to it to generate forward looking information. This will allow proactive operational decision-making at a speed that we have never seen before.”

See also

The future is connected

SITA’s new paper ‘The future is connected’ provides insights into air travel’s rapid evolution as it takes advantage of the near-ubiquitous use of smartphones by airline passengers, the evolution of the Internet of Things, and the continuing rollout of IATA’s Fast Travel program.

Citing case histories and examples from around the world, the paper looks at how airlines and airports are embracing the opportunities provided by ever increasing self-service options.

Read the paper