The transport sector keeps on moving thanks to AV tech

Transport has had a tough time in recent years, but travellers are returning and technology is helping to make the experience a better one than before. Paul Milligan reports.

The ability to travel freely has been one of the most disruptive aspects of the last two years. For some in the AV world, such as Microsoft and Zoom, it has driven a huge boost to their businesses. For those working in the transport sector, it had the opposite effect. With airlines vastly reducing services, and greater number than ever before of people working from home, our airports and train stations often resembled a deserted shopping mall. But there are signs that things are changing for the better, and measures are being taken to get people travelling again. London Underground passenger numbers reached their highest levels since the start of the pandemic in October this year, hitting 78% of pre-pandemic levels, with weekend numbers hitting the 90% mark.

Over the summer in Germany, authorities launched a bargain €9 per month ticket as an experiment. While that offer has ended, the ‘Deutschlandticket’ has continued at (a still very cheap) €49 a month (around €1.60 per day). Spain too has taken similar measure, running from September to December this year, Renfe is issuing 2 million free train passes to help restore overall passenger numbers to levels last seen before the pandemic.

So has much AV spend in transport been affected by the pandemic? And is it showing signs of recovery? “In the two year period since Covid the spend within the transportation sector was massively decreased within the first 12-18 months especially, a lot of the big delivery aspects we were in the middle of were paused or delayed,” says Jim Kerr, CEO of system integrators Astra Group. Kerr says that Astra’s revenue percentage on transportation fell to about 10%, “which is pretty unusual for us”. Thankfully he has already seen clear signs in the final quarter of this year and Q1 and Q2 of 2023 that AV spend is starting to come back. “Investment in transport stalled for quite a bit, but now everything has been ramping back up over the past few months, we're seeing a call for people wanting to expand. Since Covid they need to get more information out there, to provide extra information about security or delays, or the wearing/not wearing of masks,” says Mark Stanborough, sales director EMEA and APAC for IPTV provider Mediastar Systems.

There was undeniably a large period of time when all spending on transport projects was put on hold, that didn’t mean everything stopped however, some airports and train stations took use of the quieter crowds to undergo infrastructure updates (installing new walkways, laying new floors etc) which would have been too difficult to do under normal circumstances. A few of those did include display and/or audio upgrades too. 

One aspect of travelling which has been hard to ignore, even if you weren’t traveling yourself, has been the shortage of staff at airports. For those sites who made workers redundant in the early days of the pandemic, it has been a long and slow process to get new staff through training programmes and the right security clearance.  This has led to huge queues at major airports across the world. Is there where technology could step in and help? “Passenger information displays were obviously a thing pre-Covid, but they were a ‘nice to have’ in terms of emergency use. What we have found over this last 12 months, when they've had the struggles recruiting staff, particularly in the airport environment they’ve been using more temporary structures and temporary screens to do the job of moving people around the space,” says Kerr.

The good news is that even though these screens might be a temporary solution to an immediate problem, it doesn’t sound like the transport sector’s use of them will be temporary. “When the staffing at the airport is normalised I think people will expect to have the same amount of information available because they have got used to it during the past year. They like the flexibility of the screens to give relevant information depending on who is visiting the airport at certain times of the day. It's been an eye opener for that sector,” says Marius Lysholm, sales director, ZetaDisplay. Now that the pandemic is diminishing, the next phase will be a period of review on how transport hubs use technology says Adrian Back, sales manager for the systems integration arm of Creative Technology Ireland. “Going forward they will be thinking more about what happens if something like this happens again. And they would then look at how technology can be used in the future to manage the movement of passengers through their facility, when under those kinds of restrictions.”

One frustrating aspect of working in the transport sector is the slow nature of the procurement process, as this from Dudley McLaughlin, national sales manager for North America for pro-audio manufacturer Renkus-Heinz acutely describes. “Attached to an airport is usually a city with a governing board and politicians and decision makers. There's always politics and outside influences involved. Lots of people have to touch it, feel it, think about it, vote on it, sleep on it, so even if even if they wanted to move quickly, they probably couldn't.”

One way to placate cautious buyers is the as-a-service model. We’ve seen the growth of SaaS (software-as-a-service) in the last five years in the AV world, and while that is relevant here, could the hardware-as-a-service have more traction in this market? “They don't want to own anything that decreases in value, so it makes sense to have things delivered as a service even in those sectors that are quite traditional in how they approach the purchase of technology,” says Lysholm. Hardware is becoming a smaller part of the overall sale adds Back as deals become more weighted towards software, “As a consequence tying in the hardware and software in some kind of fee, in an OpEx basis makes a lot more sense.” Everyone we spoke to for this piece feels we will be seeing far more HaaS deals get pushed through in the future in the transport sector.  

In terms of the technology that transport clients are asking for, is that changing at all? “LED has transformed this market, there's no doubt about it. Especially when we will move into things like microLED to replace larger LFDs, that going to be a generational change in technology,” says Back. CT Ireland has just finished a big transport project for the Irish rail service, where it installed outdoor LED screens on railway bridges for DooH purposes, which not only provides a valuable revenue stream for the railways but can communicate safety messages and prevent potential accidents. There is a big trend in LED both on the demand and supply side agrees Lysholm, “In airport environment you want the big surfaces, you want the big contrast, you want all the benefits that that LED provides.” It’s not the only technology in town however, there’s still healthy demand for flat panel displays says Kerr, and sizes are moving up. “LFD is still as strong as it ever was. Historically LFD sizes were smaller, now that the price points of 44-in, 55-in and even 75-in screens are coming down we're seeing more uptake of that.” The use of touchscreens in transport hubs is going to be limited post-Covid adds Kerr. “Touchscreens were tried within this sector, the problem with touchscreens is you are only engaging that one person, then Covid came along, so we've seen a reduction of them within the public environment.” 

IPTV and digital signage systems have always been popular in transport hubs, and this is set to continue. The ability to deliver different content to different screens at different times is something this sector is very keen on says Stanborough. “If there is a clog in the process ie baggage drop or security checks, you can flash messages up on individual screens saying ‘we apologise’ etc. It’s very much a case of being able to target the right content to the right person at the right time.” That adaptability will always be coveted by railway station and airport operators says Lysholm. “The big advantage in a closed environment is that you know where your customer is at very specific times of the day. You also know what planes are leaving at what time so if you have something that is relevant for someone going to the Alps you can display that or if you have something for someone going to a warmer country you can display that.” Recently Zeta worked on a project with a bookstore inside an airport, where it created a piece of integration that could tell the shop what planes were leaving and when, so they could advertise travel guides for the places at the same time. It’s something individual travel companies are looking at too, earlier this year Delta Air Lines launched its Parallel Reality technology at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. It’s an opt-in technology which allows up to 100 customers to each see personalised flight information tailored to their unique trip on a single, shared digital screen. “We’re not just showing customers a magic trick, we’re solving a real problem. Customers already rely on personalised navigation via their mobile devices, but this is enabling a public screen to act as a personal one, removing the clutter of information not relevant to you to empower a better journey,” said Ranjan Goswami, senior VP customer experience, Delta Air Lines.

The retail side of the transport sector offers a huge opportunity for the AV world, because as McLaughlin explains, “Airports are more than just ‘come on in and get on a plane’. It's a retail experience with shopping and interactive displays and restaurants. Airports are now a place you want to go to two hours early just to eat at the nice restaurant and buy a cute outfit at the gift shop.” One importance difference to note is that retail clients in transport hubs often buy technology themselves, rather than through the operator of the site. 

We’ve looked at display technology, and personalised information, but what are the audio requirements for transport hubs in a post-Covid world? Ceiling speakers are still hugely popular, but are not always applicable with modern architecture, which are covered in large open spaces, shiny floors and huge glass windows. As McLaughlin describes, audio and airports are not always the greatest match. “You can have an airport costing hundreds of millions of dollars and it looks gorgeous but visitors still can't understand if the announcement was saying Gate 2 or Gate 3.” Luckily in that respect things are changing, and advancements in technology are helping to stop the age-old frustration of “what did that message just say?”, as McLaughlin outlines, “It's tough to put a speaker that has the coverage and the directivity (for such large spaces). Which is where digital beam steered column array loudspeakers come in. For bigger areas, we can use software to lay out the dimensions of the spaces to help define the coverage pattern, so we're able to put sound and audio and energy where it needs to be. The end result is better intelligibility,”. 

It’s a problem often repeated in the AV world, too much of the budget is spent on shiny new LED videowalls, and not enough consideration is given to the audio. “It’s often seen as a poor relation to video and it shouldn't be the case. It comes back to analysing the environment prior to specifying the products that you're recommending, ensuring that you get good SPL in all locations,” says Back. “The problem airports have is they don't really fully engage in advance, quite often they make impulsive decisions about spending money. I don't find a huge amount of work is done in advance of the tender process in terms of consultancy, they do need to have engage further with SI companies, to ensure what they want is what the result is.”

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