Artificial Intelligence

What will future airports look like?

Holly Hickman
Writer, GE Look Ahead
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Artificial Intelligence

This post first appeared on GE LookAhead.

It’s 2050. You’re flying to Dubai from Beijing. By the time you walk through the airport doors, your wearable has transmitted your boarding pass and digital passport. No need to visit a counter or kiosk. And no need to have anyone screen you either; laser-powered security cameras have already instantly performed facial (or perhaps biometric) recognition, and molecular scanners, such as those developed back in the 2015-2020 era by Tracense, have already screened your belongings for hazardous materials. A few hours later, your supersonic flight arrives on schedule, thanks to smart navigation systems enabled by the Industrial Internet. Before you even disembark, your bags are whisked by a robot to a driverless taxi that already has received your itinerary and is waiting to take you to your hotel.

This is not a fantasy scenario, says Matthys Serfontein, vice president for airports at SITA, a leading industry innovator. Parking robots, for example, are already being deployed at Düsseldorf airport.

“The modern passenger wants to spend as little time [in transit] from kerb to gate, [forgoing] the stress of check-in, immigration and security check,” says Mr Serfontein. Technology, he adds, is key to speeding through the unpleasantries.

Facial recognition systems (FRS) are part of these enabling technologies. They are already in use at London Heathrow and Amsterdam Schiphol. And, since October, automated passport control (APC) kiosks have screened passengers arriving at Orlando International near Disney World. The technology works in conjunction with chip-embedded passports and compares the passenger’s face to the photo. SITA “has installed more than 300 [APC kiosks] … reducing queues by as much as 40%,” says Mr Serfontein. Eventually, FRS could pave the way for even more accurate and speedier biometric scanning.

Other screening technologies in development (though not yet in use) include laser molecular scanners such as those developed by Genia Photonics. The scanners detect traces of explosives or drugs through clothing or organic materials and can screen multiple people at once from distances of up to 50m (164ft).

Meanwhile, airport operators invested nearly $7bn last year in IT services ranging from automated check-in to navigational apps to retail promotion. In Shanghai, Miami and Copenhagen, beacon transmitters send special offers via Bluetooth to passengers’ smartphones. Virtual shopping walls are in use in New Delhi and Frankfurt.

This trend towards transforming airports from necessary transit platforms to areas of entertainment “will accelerate”, says Jack Plunkett, CEO of Plunkett Research. “We will see more and more mainstream and even luxury retail stores within airports.”

This may help pacify the increased numbers of passengers expected to frequent airports in future: air travellers are expected to double in number, to 7.3bn, by 2034, according to the International Air Transport Association.

Mr Plunkett also sees the Industrial Internet helping to create “advances in air traffic control, which will enable an ever-increasing number of flights to take off and land more efficiently. This is the only way to handle high traffic levels in future”. And it could save money as well. GE, which recently signed a deal with Southwest Airlines to optimise its 700-strong fleet of Boeing 737s, estimates that some $22bn of savings could be achieved at the industry level each year—54% of which would come from fewer delays ($8bn) and avoided unplanned downtime ($4bn), while the rest would come from operational savings, notably fuel savings and predictive maintenance.

Perhaps, even more than holographic entertainment and myriad consumer options at the airport, increased efficiency is, indeed, the best way to improve the passenger experience. After all, the best part of travel will likely always be the destination, not the journey.

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Holly Hickman writes for GE LookAhead.

Image: A plane lands at Schiphol airport outside the Dutch Capitol Amsterdam. REUTERS/Jerry Lampen.

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Artificial IntelligenceEmerging TechnologiesSupply Chain and Transport
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