Airports Want to Innovate Faster
I’m fortunate to regularly speak with airport industry leaders. From my conversations with CEOs, as well as commercial, operations, and technology leaders, I’ve noticed a common theme. They are optimistic that the travel industry will continue recovering, and their priority is to improve revenues and the passenger experience. This isn’t surprising given how the industry has been impacted by the pandemic, and how we, the traveling public, want to experience the pleasure of travel that we have missed.
What is surprising is the sense of urgency. Airport industry leaders know that technology can unlock the necessary changes in their business, and they want to move faster. They are asking how the airport industry can harness new technologies more quickly, shorten the lead times associated with IT projects, and deal with the constraint of incredibly tight budgets and stretched IT resources.
With this perspective in mind, I recently virtually attended AWS re:Invent 2021, our annual customer learning conference. I was keen to see what new product launches and customer success stories could help the airport industry adapt and change more quickly.
One of the highlights of re:Invent for me was United Airlines’ Intelligent Airport session. Jason Birnbaum, Senior Vice President, Digital Technology at United Airlines, explained how they worked with AWS to improve the passenger experience and their airport operations.
United Airlines used computer vision, built on AWS, to monitor customer wait times in Newark Liberty International Airport. They also optimized the utilization of their ground service equipment (if this equipment is late, it can delay a flight arrival or departure). They equipped 20,000 ground support assets with tags, and used AWS IoT services (including IoT Greengrass at the edge) to monitor the equipment location, routing, use, and availability. Their Intelligent Airport project saved the airline $120M, reduced emissions by 5-7%, and saved 1.3 million personnel hours.
Create digital twins
The Internet of Things (IoT) has been around for a while now, and as we’ve seen with United Airlines, many companies are using the technology for real-time monitoring and analysis to improve their operations. AWS offers IoT services and solutions to connect and manage billions of devices.
AWS IoT TwinMaker takes this one step further and makes it easier to create digital twins of physical industrial environments. A digital twin is essentially a virtual representation of the physical world, and it is used to understand operational performance and run simulations. AWS IoT TwinMaker takes data from IoT sensors, video cameras, application data feeds, and system events. For an airport, this can make it easier to centrally manage and visualize the electromechanical systems and sensors across the airport terminal, such as air bridges, baggage handling, building management, elevators, and escalators. This can be combined with closed-circuit television (CCTV), flight information, and security systems data. A potential use-case is airport control centers for daily operations and planning.
Wireless airport networks
Airports have been relying on wired networks and Wi-Fi for data connectivity across their entire campus. These networks often don’t extend everywhere and are expensive to upgrade as demand increases, particularly for connected sensors and machines. 5G promises to overcome these issues with high bandwidth coverage over a large area for tens of thousands of devices. Designing, building, and deploying 5G is complex and expensive for airports, as it requires telecoms expertise and engagement with multiple vendors, each with their own contracts and pricing models (often per-device, which can get very expensive when you’re planning for thousands of devices).
AWS Private 5G simplifies the deployment of private 5G networks and lets airports manage their own private cellular network, with no up-front costs, and no per-device charges. AWS provides the hardware, software, and security information management system (SIMs). The private cellular network can be set-up in days instead of months. It auto-configures and connects to the airport’s existing local area network. Airports can start small, scale on-demand, and pay as they go.
AWS infrastructure in your airport
While most applications can be easily migrated to the cloud, some applications must be on-premises for low-latency (minimal delay) access to local systems, or they need local data processing or storage. AWS Outposts provides AWS services in our customer’s own data center in an 80” (2 m) tall standard equipment rack. Our customers have been asking for smaller, server-sized units for for sites with space and capacity constraints, such as branch offices or retail stores.
AWS Outposts servers provides the same on-site AWS services in a smaller unit. The smallest is just 1U (1.75”/45 mm) high. It’s the ideal method for airports to run AWS services on-premises for workloads with low-latency and local data processing needs, such as baggage handling systems.
Computer vision at the edge
Airports, like many industries, have been using computer vision to automate tasks previously performed by human monitoring. For example, viewing hundreds of security camera feeds to check if a person is in a restricted area. Implementing these systems has required expensive local computing resources or video streaming from cameras to the cloud (which is difficult to scale for many cameras).
AWS Panorama is a machine learning (ML) appliance installed locally (“at the edge”) in the airport that connects directly to the internet protocol (IP) cameras in the airport. The ML models are created in the cloud and run locally on the device, which processes video feeds on-site. The airport can control where the data is stored and it can operate with limited internet bandwidth. Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport already uses AWS Panorama with our partner TaskWatch to automatically monitor congestion for over 70,000 square feet of airport traffic lanes.
Is my flight on time?
I’ve been a big fan of Alexa since I got my first Echo in 2017. Airports such as George Best Belfast City Airport have Alexa skills available so that passengers can use their device to get flight and airport information. But what about people who call the airport for assistance? Amazon Connect is the backbone of the Modern Contact Center for Travel and Hospitality.
Amazon Lex Automated Chatbot Designer adds the core Alexa service, Amazon Lex, to Amazon Connect, and helps customers design chatbots in hours rather than weeks by using existing conversation transcripts. One use case for an airport could be enabling passengers to call the airport information number and have a natural conversation: “what time is flight Airline 123 due to land?”, and “how long will the security queue be this afternoon?”.
As I stated in How Airports Can Innovate by Obsessing over Passenger Experience, when airports start with the customer’s needs and work backward from there, they can improve both the passenger experience and revenues. There are many examples of this, including a recent one from AWS partner Wipro and Toronto Pearson International Airport. They built a passenger boarding queue system that improved passenger communication, reduced gate agent workload, and provided additional revenue opportunities for the airport and airline. The airline used the system to sell seat upgrades on over 80% of flights.
Most organizations say that the number one benefit of moving to the cloud is agility. Having access to on-demand computing power and storage, available globally, and only paying for what you use, gives organizations the freedom to innovate. Services ranging from data lakes and serverless computing, to artificial intelligence (AI) and ML, provide organizations with the ability to move faster, iterate, and quickly deliver business and customer outcomes. AWS now has even more ways to get started.
The pace of change in airports is exciting. It’s never been easier to use technology to tackle the hard problems, make journeys more seamless, and help airlines, airports, handling agents, and all stakeholders provide a better experience for their customers.
For more information about how AWS is transforming the airport industry, visit the Travel and Hospitality page.