Airports and airlines are keeping an eye on people, baggage and equipment that flow through facilities in an effort to increase efficiency and reduce errors. That means understanding where passengers are, where equipment has been stored or where luggage is being routed. The solutions that deliver this visibility use wireless networks that require a cable backbone. Now, the race is on for the technology that suits each airport, and it is fueled further by the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) requirements for baggage visibility.
Wi-Fi isn’t the only game in town to keep data moving. Different wireless networks offer low-power data transmission to monitor the many moving parts of a busy airport. The Sigfox network, for example, has a hardware presence to provide low-power communications in most international airports and ship ports of entry.
Sigfox has built the largest internet of things ecosystems with 700 installations, said Ajay Rane, vice president of business development at Sigfox, headquartered in France.
Leveraging that network, Sigfox’s PinPoint airport baggage-handling system serves facilities managers and passengers. The system uses what the company calls Virtual Bubbles in the form of networked beacons to create zones where people or baggage can be located. Using this concept, the company has partnered with Louis Vuitton to integrate a tracker into the brand’s luggage, which helps travelers locate their checked bags at most airports, Rane said.
The Louis Vuitton luggage sensors track motion, rapid acceleration and barometric pressure that turn off in flight and back on when landed. The wireless network then receives the luggage transmissions to identify bags upon entering a terminal.
The Sigfox system reports to passengers when their bags are moving through the baggage-handling process, while PinPoint is more precise for airlines or airports. The beacons help report precisely where the bag is inside the baggage-handling facility, which can help improve efficiency.
These low-power wireless systems are also being used to track ground services equipment, such as vehicles and trolleys. Some airports are using the Sigfox network and sensors to track moving elements on the tarmac and location of goods delivered by air courier companies. The network’s company has worked with national carriers in two countries, Rane said, that are using the Sigfox system to track their equipment on the ground. Packages will be the next level of connectivity.
Another area of deployment will be carts for airlines crews. The carts are typically secured with plastic seals that must be cut before anything can be accessed inside. The Sigfox sensors can show an alert if an unauthorized attempt is made to cut the seal.
Airlines and airports are pursuing better baggage management solutions to meet IATA’s needs to make all baggage traceable throughout airports around the world. IATA’s Resolution 753, passed in 2018, dictated that airlines employ an identification system that detects when a bag passes through specific zones, which use UHF radio-frequency identification (RFID)-based tags or similar technology. Such technology is intended to enable tracking bags at any airport, said Onur Yildiz, senior sales manager at Kathrein Solutions, headquartered in Germany with an office in Plano, Texas.
An RFID system uses reader and antenna installations at self-service counters and can be retrofitted into existing check-in counters. Ultra-high frequency RFID readers capture each bag’s passive battery-free tag identification printed when it is checked in and as it passes through conveyor systems to and from the planes.
Kathrein Solutions is among the companies providing the bulk of those readers and antenna hardware.
“For the sorting and transfer process, we have different types of antennas to secure a reliable read process, and we work closely with system providers who build tunnels with the common technologies like bar code and camera combined now with RFID,” Yildiz said.
The only challenge ahead for the industry is identifying who takes ownership of some deployments.
“We see that there is still some discussion about who is responsible for implementation and who will make the investment, either the flight companies or the airports,” Yildiz said.
As a result of the cost-ownership discussion, big airlines are commonly approaching this technology with pilots or deployments in cooperation with their home-base airports. This is the point where airlines and airports expect the fastest return on investment by avoiding misrouted bags, he said.
Yildiz’s expectation for 2020 and beyond is the big airports and hubs will add or update RFID to existing airport sites during new construction or renovations.
Some of the biggest airlines, such as Delta, have already started rolling out baggage tags with RFID chips.
Cellular data provides intelligence that can manage the flow of people. The growing volume of passengers raises the risk of airport overcrowding, delays, lost revenue and even safety breaches.
“Many airports are now racing to build new infrastructure and expand their capacity to match demand,” said Christian Carstens, marketing manager of Veovo, an airport experience software company headquartered in New Zealand, with offices in four countries.
Inadequate terminal capacity affects flight schedules, which can lead airlines to reduce or eliminate flights. That can mean higher prices and a reduction in trade, tourism and investment. While airports worldwide have planned expansions, major infrastructure upgrades can take years to finalize, Carstens said. In the meantime, airports must find ways to maximize their existing capacity.
In some cases, passengers are tracked using their cellphones.
“To optimize current capacity and plan for future expansion projects, operators need to be able to accurately measure and predict how people move throughout and use the airport,” Carstens said.
Accurate growth forecasting can then help optimize capacity use.
That said, any weak link in the chain can cause ripple effects through the whole ecosystem. Companies such as Veovo focus on ways to provide a view into the terminal complex as a whole.
“Understanding how people move is critical to assessing capacity and forecasting the effects of delays or disruptions,” he said.
If airports can foresee the events that will affect terminal operations, they will be able to adjust plans accordingly.
Numerous airports, including those in Amsterdam, Bristol and Birmingham, England and Keflavik, Iceland, employ a combination of cellular phone and beacon-based data to view how passengers flow through areas such as security, where bottlenecks happen and when those need to be addressed. Technology can also identify the movement of staff and ensure they are where they’re needed at any time.
The Veovo wireless data helps show passenger flow and behaviors to make necessary changes to scheduling or staffing.
“Taking a flow-management approach gives accurate and detailed passenger behavior profiles to produce dynamic and accurate passenger forecasts,” Carstens said.
With better forecasting, airports can make smarter decisions and plan upgrades and function more efficiently.