(Re)designing smart airports of the future

Monday, November 16, 2020 - 11:11
5 -min read
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Airports in the region have borne the brunt of the pandemic: terminals were closed, operations scaled back, and non-essential spending deferred. Despite the current bleakness, the Airports Council International (ACI) Asia-Pacific believes that mega airports – those handling more than 40 million passengers a year – still have a role to play, and have urged airports to “think creatively” in their post-pandemic strategies. In Vietnam, where COVID-19 spread was suppressed quickly, domestic flights saw a rebound, before a second wave of infections stalled growth again. Similarly, the success of air travel – domestic or international – within ASEAN will rely on keeping infection numbers down, in which safe management in airports will play a big role. 

Against this backdrop, what strategies should airports adopt to create a safe and welcoming environment for travellers? How do we find a balance between delivering people-centric passenger experience and meeting sustainability goals?

Rethinking the Design of Smart Airports

We need to rethink the design process of an airport of the future, be it a new built project or a retrofit. We need to look at who is using the space within the building and integrate building systems and intelligent infrastructure as a holistic part of the entire design. This approach addresses the safety, efficiency, and sustainability concerns of an airport, while also boosting its operational agility and efficiency. In essence, “scalability-on-demand” solutions design architecture is a key factor in transforming airports.

Any proposed framework must comprise five distinct but connected design elements. This includes:

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  • Identifying the desired outcomes — such as scalability-on-demand, safety, high-efficiency, and sustainability— at the top-level design stage on the onset and outline the targets of these respective outcomes. 
  • Creating a digital twin, or a virtual model, of the airport once the outputs, experiences, space, and applications have been specified. This involves building an underlying integrated platform, such as Johnson Controls’ OpenBlue platform, which includes wireless sensors and devices to collect real-world information about the structure, and applying AI and machine learning to ingest and visualize data that enables airport operators to create a consistent experience for individuals using the space. 
  • Designing a personalised experience to suit different individuals. For instance, passengers, airport staff, and airlines’ ground handlers have different requirements at different times and in different spaces. We can combine historical information with artificial intelligence (AI) technology to provide an optimal experience.
  • Identify different scenarios in each space and develop the building design to meet the stipulated experiences. Different spatial scenarios can be constructed for spaces similar to departure/arrival halls, epidemic prevention and control isolation areas, or a ground traffic center.
  • Consider the applications that are required in each space to support the functional design of the space and operational workflow. This may involve the creation of various applications, including passenger services, emergency services command, situational awareness, and energy efficiency management — all which require a complete connection between all supporting systems.

The framework in play

Scalability-on-demand architecture leverages virtualised cloud infrastructure, data analytics, and smart edge technology to transform airports into safer, highly scalable, flexible, and agile facilities. Such digital transformation of airports will allow operators to optimise space usage, assets and resources effectively and efficiently. 

The application of digital twin technology to airports is an emerging trend. This approach creates a digital 3D replica of the assets, processes, people, places, systems and devices of an airport, and includes past, present and future events related to the building and the environment. The real-world data collected through the network of sensors interacts with the 3D model and allows airport operators to run scenario simulations — ranging from fault predictions on equipment to building utilisation and optimisation —  using predictive algorithms to study the impact. A digital twin allows the airport management to gain a real-time view of the integrated systems of the buildings, and to leverage data to make informed decisions about safety and sustainability goals. 

Digital technology used in airports can address safety concerns. It supports touchless entry and access to specific touch-points within the airports such as immigration kiosks, and services such as elevators, and can also support occupant tracking and tracing applications to enforce social distancing and automatically trace exposure to COVID-19 positive individuals. In other instances, travellers at an airport can use a wayfinding app to get turn-by-turn directions in text and interactive map format to search for various destinations within the terminal, including gates, shops, and security checkpoints. Such an app also allows passengers to take the most direct route possible to save time and headaches.

In addition, digital technology can help with better queue management and the implementation of social distancing measures within airports. Airport operators need to understand passenger density across the terminal in real-time to take pre-emptive action to prevent crowding. Insights about passenger density can be obtained by applying data analytics on up-to-the-minute data captured at various points through a network of smart sensors. Another application could be to allocate separate baggage claim belts to passenger luggage arriving from high-risk countries from low-risk ones. Even flight information display panels can be utilised to display relevant information regarding crowded spaces to avoid or to direct passengers arriving from a high-risk pandemic country to specific immigration counters to contain the risk of infections and contamination. With real-time awareness of any situation in the terminal, the airport operations team is empowered to make smarter decisions and to balance operational efficiencies within the airport.

Ensuring clear air quality will be key to mitigating Covid-19 risks for airport operators going forward. A combination of strategies such as ventilation methods to increase outdoor air circulation and optimised temperature and humidity settings to destabilise pathogen transmission will be crucial to increase clean air delivery within the terminals.

In transit: Preparing for the new normal of airports

We may yet to know when or how the new normal in regional civil aviation will pan out. But one thing’s for sure: we cannot continue to construct buildings without integrating systems and intelligent infrastructure nor can we focus just on the physical appearance of the airport. The airports of the future need to be more people-centric, healthier, safer, scalable-on-demand, and more sustainable in the post-pandemic norm.

The writer is vice president, commercial excellence and sales, Asia Pacific, at Johnson Controls. 

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