By Stuart Garrett
Aviation technology, particularly its aspects visible to the traveling public, can sometimes appear simplistic. And that makes sense: If consumers can have complete control of their technology experience at home, why not at airports? If mobile applications can use augmented reality to play games, why can’t the traveling experience be as interactive?
While airports take advantage of advancing technology, the realities of implementing the latest and greatest upgrades grow even more challenging. (Sure, closed-circuit video systems can keep electronic eyes on every square inch of a terminal, but how can your operations share and create value from all that data? And how do you protect the data from hackers?) That’s why working with a design and implementation partner who is both informed and experienced is critical in making your technology integrations as smooth as possible.
Remember, airport technology is an enormously complex set of interactions, components and data that often involves niche hardware and software suppliers and data integrators. That makes airports challenging enough for operators, designers and stakeholders, but differences in governance add another layer of variability to their work:
- Differences in government-issued driver’s licenses, visas and passports make document-check difficult to accomplish automatically and consistently across the spectrum of global airport security.
- In some countries, a security checkpoint includes a local document-check using firmware embedded in a scanner; in others, the document-check interfaces interactively with government databases, airlines’ host departure control systems or the airport’s operational database. Because no single entity is responsible for the entirety of the passenger experience, integrating technology drives design decisions.
Designing for Data
In an airport, a community of diverse stakeholders must work in concert. Because Starbucks, McDonald’s and Wal-Mart each have dominant corporate brands — and, therefore, wield considerable control over their facilities — they control most of the technology they need to operate their facilities. Compare that to aviation, where governance models are maintained in a separate and distinct fashion. Oft-repeated but very true: If you’ve seen one airport, you’ve seen one airport.
That makes interoperability between stakeholders vitally important. Airlines, public safety, environmental, baggage and many other operational departments must work collaboratively and share data. That means seeing that each party has the data it needs, when needed, to operate at extremely close tolerances. Factor in the sheer variety of technologies available to each stakeholder, and potential design gaps become obvious. Differences in databases, protocols and internetworking topologies are just a few constraints with which designers grapple.
The challenge is being embraced at a major international airport in the western United States, where a new terminal is being built. Working with the airport, our design-build team isn’t just discussing data — we’re designing for data by facilitating integration of building automation, facilities control and monitoring of conveyance and utilities.
Information, Bagged and Tagged
Such integration is complicated, and passenger processing systems offer an example. Boarding passes and bag tags require specific devices to mechanically handle airline stock. While home-printed or mobile boarding passes help, universal adoption has not yet arrived and the print stream itself is unique.
While consumers and technicians often think that printing forms at airports is as simple as printing a Word document at home, many airlines require specialized firmware to interpret commands and produce expected results.
Processing bags is another area where a highly orchestrated concert of data must be exchanged securely, efficiently and rapidly. Data required to accept, screen, sort and track baggage must be generated, interpreted and acted upon using predefined rules from multiple parties and within tight tolerances for timing. And much of the data arrives and departs as quickly as passengers and their bags do; only some information remains behind for archival purposes. This means airports must take action on the data, making intelligent operational decisions quickly. Designers must figure out how airports can get the most from their data before it is lost.
Next comes the sheer volume. While fast-food retailers, manufacturers and other businesses can mine their deep sources of data to generate valuable insights, such information is drawn from only a few sources. Compare that to modern commercial airports, in which an ocean of information is filled by diverse data streams: cargo, fueling, environmental, public safety and security, LAN/WAN, Wi-Fi, maintenance and support, finance, central utilities, parking, retail concessions, landing fees and airline lease agreements, baggage, passenger processing, queue monitoring, capital budgeting and planning, construction projects, building automation systems, facilities monitoring and control, and the now-burgeoning “internet of things.”
The lists of challenges for airports continues to expand. Applying the rigors of engineering culture to technology integration puts your airport on course for landing what you need: systems that are safe, secure, convenient, consistent and resilient.