Just as Moore’s law articulates that the speed and capability of computers and computing can be expected to double every two years, the way we employ technology in our daily lives has followed the same exponential rate of acceptance and utilization. Aviation, with its primary focus on safety, has commonly allowed other industries to lead the adoption of new technology — preferring instead to only implement the best and most proven of improvements within the airport environment. Today’s society desires to be more interconnected both physically and technologically in all aspects of life, including during the air travel experience.

As technology evolves, new opportunities arise for creating this interconnectedness between passengers and their surroundings. With the recent drops in passenger count and related scrutiny aimed at improving airports’ financial bottom lines, the aviation industry has a unique opportunity during this downturn to implement both proven and new technologies that can help establish an enhanced aviation experience and provide improvements to the long-term operating costs and efficiencies. As an operator of an airport, you no longer need to choose between one goal or another — we will describe a way you can make technology decisions that accomplish both.

Capturing specific data streams allows for the measurement, monitoring and control of systems across the entire airport campus. Thoughtful analysis of this data can lead to insights that drive more efficient use of human resources, improvements to passenger experience and the development of a flexible operating platform that can adapt as the aviation industry recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Significant improvements can be achieved by installing upgrades to a single surface in the airport: the ceiling, for example. Installation of a digital ceiling that incorporates Power over Ethernet (PoE) LED lighting with incorporated or freestanding low-voltage temperature sensors, light sensors, speakers, cameras and beacons — along with 5G connectivity and the appropriate IT backbone — provides the necessary foundation for capturing multiple types of data based on sensor type, camera installation and more.

The installation of a digital ceiling can have far-reaching implications on the ability to provide and utilize data within the airport environment. But to seize any of these opportunities, decision-makers first need to invest in the infrastructure and built environment improvements (i.e., sensors, beacon, camera installation) to gather more data.

The measurement and control of systems can be modified in distinct spaces as each sensor and element in a digital ceiling can be individually addressed and, therefore, individually controlled. This can affect elements that are both mundane and specialized. Light sensors can be programmed to interface with a lighting control system and automatically adjust light levels of individual light fixtures, providing an energy and cost savings.

Temperature sensors can be programmed to interface with the building management system and in coordination with sensors that identify the number of people to customize temperature, airflow and predictively manage HVAC equipment to provide advanced cooling before anticipated crowds arrive at a specific area, like a hold room. Speakers can be tuned individually to support the needs of specific areas. Lighting levels and colors can each individually be controlled from a smartphone.

All of these elements are powered via low-voltage cabling and can be connected to the network via 5G wireless technology. This means hard-piped data and power connections are not required, freeing the airport from inflexible and costly infrastructure that has traditionally limited an airport’s or airline’s ability to react to changing business and functional needs.

Consider the normal boarding process as traditionally seen in airports across the U.S. today. Passengers, without control of the timing or distance, flock to a gate area and sit and wait. They often bypass commercial food, beverage and shopping opportunities to make sure they board their aircraft as soon as possible. Once arriving at the gate, overhead speakers communicate information loudly and often simultaneously in adjacent gates, increasing passenger anxiety and damaging the overall experience.

Once in the boarding area, there is a push to get on the plane right away, often causing people to stand and congregate within walkways while impeding the deplaning process. Boarding processes for individual airlines vary widely, but consistent with them all — before COVID-19 — is that premium boarding happens first and getting on the plane sooner rather than later guarantees the availability of overhead bin space and often preferred seating location.

With the installation of a digital ceiling, the boarding process can be transformed in meaningful ways. Beacons throughout the airport can track passengers’ locations relative to their gate and notify them of the typical walking distance and time before they are called to board, customized to their boarding group or position. Sharing information about walking distance and boarding group and position can free passengers to linger in other areas of the airport and make additional purchases without the anxiety of getting to their gate “on time.” It allows airlines the potential to pinpoint locations of passengers, which provides for better management of flight departure variables (e.g., standby and premium upgrades) and a better understanding of passenger queuing and dwell times.

Once at the gate, the notification, visual and auditory clues of when and how to board can be extended to the ceiling. Lights along the boarding lane can have customizable colors that allow for notification of where staging for various boarding groups should occur, along with identifying the area where currently boarding passengers should congregate. Speaker volume can be customized for better, more relevant information for each boarding area without the constant overlap of information and competing volumes to gain customers’ attention. The same beacons that track position of customers can also provide boarding messages via cellphone notification both visually and in auditory ways.

As a system for gathering data that can be activated via analytics, the airport terminal’s ceiling provides more potential data inputs than any other surface. This data can be utilized and analyzed for benefits both known and unknown.

Via PoE, Wi-Fi access is no longer limited to hard-piped Wireless Application Protocols (WAPs) with both power and data connectivity located every 30 feet across the airport. Flexibility to modify sensors, operational zones and configurations is limitless and provides future-proofing of the passenger terminal for generations to come. This new infrastructure and data gathering will provide valuable insight and opportunities for improvements to both the passenger experience and airport operations while delivering a more interconnected experience.

 

This is the fifth in our “Investing in Airport Technology” blog series. Traveler wants and needs at airports are increasing. With 5G and Wi-Fi 6 technology advancements, data can be used to make improvements to the passenger experience.

Read the Fourth Blog in the Series

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As an architect and project manager at Burns & McDonnell, Lori Top provides strategic project leadership to the aviation practice as a strategic adviser.  She leads a collaborative process among our clients and teams to create the vision and strategic road map, and plan for successful execution of complex projects and programs.