Industries in Depth

How the Internet of Things is transforming aviation

Fabio Segre
Manager of New Business Development, Embraer
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The Internet of Things promises to have widespread ramifications. In aviation, its effects could include reducing travel time and increasing safety and passenger comfort. However, this opportunity will be realized only with international coordination and with business and government responding to the profound economic and political questions it raises.

Machines will rule the world! Although not exactly as Hollywood proposes. Today there is a strong movement towards the Internet of Things, where machines communicate with other machines to improve our lives. CISCO estimates that there will be 50 billion internet-connected devices by 2020 − more than six times the world’s population. Imagine all these devices connected in a very smart way, “thinking” and planning. Everything will be bigger, better, faster and cheaper than ever before.

Nowhere is this truer than in my own industry, aviation. The Internet of Things promises a new vision of aviation operations and business models.

Optimized routes − New software is already being developed to enhance the monitoring of planes and to allow them to take “free routes” outside predefined air corridors. When airplanes are connected to each other and to points on the land, they will be able to communicate with each other to calculate ahead of time where their flight trajectories intersect so that accidents can be avoided. Taking the shortest route to their destination will significantly reduce travel time and save fuel and carbon emissions.

Optimized traveller experience − Satellite navigation systems will be much more accurate than the current radar and radio navigation systems, meaning flights will nearly always be exactly on time. Satellite navigation is already beginning with the Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B) system, for which some airplanes must have the necessary equipment fitted in Europe by 2017 and in the United States by 2020. The passenger experience will be further improved by “smart airports” with more speedy and efficient check-in, security and customs procedures. Dubai is among several airports already offering smart gates with automatic identification. Security systems will know to expect a passenger at a specific time and manage clearance without queues; flights will be ready on time because aircraft systems will have been remotely inspected and repaired where necessary, based on systems health monitoring, meaning no more airplane delays at the gate; the aircraft will provide connection information for passengers during the flight; and ground transportation will be ready at the right time – all in a seamless and transparent way.

New business models − Many companies, even small ones, will have the opportunity to operate globally with local flavours provided by partners around the world. The sharing economy could reach the air travel industry, through individuals being able to easily resell their flight tickets, or places on private jets being rented out.

Increasing number of airborne vehicles − Air transportation needs to become more efficient as the number of travellers grows due to global population growth and the rise of the middle classes in developing countries. Pilot shortage could be a challenge – or perhaps not, as fully automated commercial flights will soon be feasible. Also, drones of varying sizes will be part of daily life – Amazon is already testing them for delivering products, and a range of other uses is imaginable. As the number of airborne vehicles increases rapidly, a much more integrated air traffic management system will be necessary.

To transform this vision into reality, there is still much work to do. For example, machines will need to understand each other, as the Internet of Things will work only if a common language connects all objects in the same system; machines and people will need to be protected against cyberattacks – if planes’ routes are linked and dependent on smart machines, hacking could have catastrophic consequences; governments will need to have a more global mindset and work together.

How can vested interests in the status quo be addressed? Will countries allow planes to travel “freely” in their airspace? Does regulation have to be global, or could it work on a regional basis? Can global regulations realistically be achieved? If certain regions or countries are excluded from the benefits of efficient air transportation enabled by the Internet of Things, will it deepen existing geopolitical divides? Will developing countries be left behind, or might they leapfrog and avoid adaptation costs?

Delays at major US airports alone are projected to cost up to $20 billion by 2020, according to the World Economic Forum’s report Connected World: Hyperconnected Travel and Transportation in Action. The Internet of Things could reduce these costs and create other gains. More efficient air travel could make trade and supply chains more efficient, and increased safety given the reduced scope for human error could unlock the benefits of opening up the skies to more air traffic. Conceivably, more efficiently connecting the countries of the world could even promote global cooperation and integration.

This piece is one of a number of individual perspectives from the Global Strategic Foresight Community of the World Economic Forum for the Annual Meeting 2015. To read more access the full collection.

Author: Fabio Segre is the Manager of New Business Development at Embraer.

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