What lies ahead for AV in the transport sector?
Technology and transport have become fused, but what lies ahead? Paul Milligan looks at the upcoming technologies that could impact on transport hubs.
Flying or travelling somewhere by train is a part of all our lives but for many it’s a task we endure rather than enjoy. Thankfully technology has become a major part in reducing the stress of getting from point A to point B. From AI to facial recognition, from voice check-in to VR lounges, and from AR wayfinding to digital air traffic control towers, a new wave of technology is coming that will make our journeys more relaxing, more efficient and more integrated.
Before we see what’s coming next, has the market changed much in the last few years for AV consultants and system integrators working within it? “The market is improving and getting better because there are a lot of people in the transport sector who realise that AV is making the difference in a positive way. Technology is entering the primary process, especially in the transport sector, which means they cannot do their job properly without it,” says Jean Pierre Overbeek, CEO of Netherlands-based AV and IT integrator BIS|Econocom, who have just signed a long-term AV deal with Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, the third busiest airport in Europe.
The transport market is still a conventional market however adds Bart Donkersloot, sales director, BIS|Econocom; “Some are struggling with some old patterns of thinking and they are fairly conventional. So we take a lot a lot of time over transformation processes to get it right on the level they want for their users.” Technology is a vital part of being at an airport or large train stations says Overbeek. “We consider it a must have, and something people expect, especially in airports. Transport was ahead of the retail market with LED screens and TV screens in shops and in public environments, and now retail is picking up what airports have been doing for 4 or 5 years already. Look at one of the airports in London (Gatwick), it had a screen failure and people needed whiteboards to show flight information, that shows how important technology has become to an airport. You cannot run an airport without this technology, it's as simple as that.”
Because of the scale of supplying AV to one of the busiest airports in Europe, BIS|Econocom has introduced an AV as a Service model at Schiphol. Donkersloot explains how it works; “We start with an audit to find out what the real business objectives are, rather than talking about the technology and brands, we discuss the outcome. The first thing we can do is buy their technology, which means we buy their third-party solutions, and bring it under a lifecycle management programme. Then we can advise a multi-year plan, when to change the technology, when to update, and when to upgrade. It then becomes like a fleet of cars, when you 100 or 200 cars you don't lease one car with a company X and another one with company Y. That's the way we approach AV as well. We own it, we maintain it, and we support it, so it becomes hassle free for the customer.” Another advantage of this model is that it helps speed up the digitisation programme, which is something almost every major airport and train station is having to contend with right now around the world.
One innovation on the way which might not benefit passengers as directly as other technologies mentioned here, but is one that could certainly benefit the proAV sector, is the growth of digital air traffic control towers. In 2015 Saab and Swedish air navigation service provider LFV launched a digital control centre at Sundsvall Örnsköldsvik Airport, making it the world’s first airport to manage traffic remotely. Other remote tower projects are ongoing in the US, New Zealand, Singapore and in the UK. London City Airport is near completion of its own RTS (Remote Traffic System) project, also featuring Saab’s technology. A mast holding 14 HD cameras will feed data through to a control room 80 miles away. The cameras will provide a full 360-degree view of the airfield in a level of detail greater than the human eye, alongside the audio feed from the airfield. Controllers will be able to zoom in for close-up views of aircraft movements along the 1500m runway, with PTZ cameras that can magnify up to 30 times. They will also be able to build an AR live view of the airfield, and overlay the images with weather information, on-screen labels, radar data, aircraft call signs, or to track moving objects.
Once you reach an airport or train station, finding your way around can often be problematic. They are vast spaces and will only grow in size if predictions from the International Air Transport Association, that passengers by air travel will double from 2016 to 2035, are anywhere near correct. “You can expand airports but only to a certain point before you run out of space, the only way for you to improve the customer experience at airports is digital, how do you make it better for people?” says Marianne Slamich, head of marketing for positioning platform provider Pointr. This is where AR wayfinding can step in, but is there resistance from airport or train station owners to something so new? “When it comes to airports they are definitely quite keen,” says Slamich. “Their main goals as an aeronautical operator is to improve the passenger experience, increase non-aeronautical revenue, and reduce costs. And technology enables all three.”
Pointr has worked with Gatwick Airport in the UK to provide an indoor navigation system. Fitted around the airport are 2,000 beacons so that digital map users will get a more accurate blue dot as they walk around. The beacon system also powers an AR wayfinding tool, but systems are capable of even more says Slamich, and can utilise AI to get better results across the site. “Using analytics we’re able to reduce the waiting time at security because you know how many people are there in any given time, you're able to analyse customer journeys so much better that you can reduce costs as well.
"For example at airports trolleys are valuable and they need to be at very specific places at very specific time. If you've got a plane coming from France, they will need a specific trolley at a specific time at a specific place, we can reallocate trolleys to the right place at the right time. We can improve operational efficiency as well, we can tell you if you are at the wrong gate, or it can be used for proximity marketing i.e. we know when you came last week you approached this make-up counter, here’s 20% off this perfume if you want to buy it today. We're just scratching the surface at the moment with all of this, it's pretty exciting.”
Which digital platform you use isn’t important to passengers says Slamich, all they care about is that the user experience is ultimately smooth. And in that respect, things are about to improve, as Slamich explains. “If you're thinking about a future travel experience, from the moment you book your flights on a website to the moment you get wherever you need to go it’s an integrated experience. When you arrive at the airport it automatically saves your car location. So that when you come back, you'll be able to find your car very easily. Then when you enter the building it tells you have 20 minutes left before you need to go to your gates, then it shows you some restaurant options, which are specifically designed for you on your way to gate 2. It tells you it will take 3 minutes to get through security.”
Wayfinding technology could also make shopping, a common activity for many passengers, even easier than before. “We're doing pilot projects for premium customers sitting in VIP lounges. Those people don't really want to move from the VIP lounge, but want to shop at duty free, so we have a system where you can buy things using an iPad and everything is delivered to where you are,” says Slamich. This is done using asset tracking and positioning. Food could even be delivered at your gate says Slamich,”because we’ve got the exact positioning of that person, it's works exactly like GPS. We think GPS is just Google Maps, but it drives services like Deliveroo, Uber etc.”
Voice technology can also help improve our travel experience. We have all seen the proliferation of devices from Amazon and Google in our homes, and some travel providers are now integrating services with this technology. Passengers for Virgin Australia can check-in with Amazon Alexa, and users of the same system can get live flight status information, gate updates and details on arrivals and departures from Heathrow Airport in the UK. Customers for United Airlines in the US can now start the check-in process simply by saying “Hey Google, check in to my flight”.
Facial recognition is one technology that has a huge potential in transport hubs, and is being embraced around the world. Atlanta's Hartsfield Jackson International Airport and Delta Air Lines have opened the US's first curb-to-gate biometric terminal. A number of airports including Heathrow Airport, Changi Airport (Singapore), and Hong Kong International Airport have all launched major biometric-related projects too. Unlike other troubled facial recognition projects we’ve seen in public areas, those in airports or train stations haven’t faced the same level of scrutiny (or criticism or anger), which is presumably because the majority of travellers can see the security and time-saving benefits possible.
Modern travelling often includes a period of time before boarding takes place. Traditionally this has always been the time to either drink and eat or shop. Or you may catch up on a boxset via your tablet/laptop. But some transport hubs are looking to technology to provide a better overall experience. This summer Dallas-Fort Worth International opened a VR Lounge, with 36 Xbox consoles. Another airport in the US, JFK in New York, has opened a VR Experience Centre for the 70,000 passengers who pass through Terminal 4 each day. If video games aren’t your thing you could watch a movie, three US airports (Minneapolis, Portland, and San Francisco) have started showing films in waiting areas, with Portland even installing a high-tech cinema. Again, its another way of using technology to make travel more fun and less stressful. Which is something we all want, no matter where we are travelling to.