Flying Smart: Airports undergo a digital makeover

Airports undergo a digital makeover

With the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the importance of deploying digital technologies in the aviation sector became more prominent. As a result, the Indian aviation industry has also accepted increasing technological reliance as the new norm for all airports throughout the country. At present, new-age digital technologies are progressively reshaping airline operations. They have been effectively aiding airlines in seamless operations and providing customers a frictionless flying experience. It is expected that with increased technology adoption in the segment, digital innovations will continue to transform the aviation industry in India.


Adoption of digital solutions in aviation

Many airports in India have deployed technology that works in conjunction with airport staff to provide better and more efficient services. Recent trends in technological deployment show a move towards smart technology, which will end up replacing some of the roles and res­ponsibilities of airport staff. India is currently at a stage where airports are moving from a digitally enabled stage to a fully digital stage.

In-line baggage screening

In a key development, the Airports Authority of India (AAI) has mandated its integrated logistics arm, AAI Cargo Logistics and Allied Servic­es Company Limited, to carry out in-line bagg­age screening at airports. This will not only im­prove security at airports but also streamline the process to make it more efficient. As per la­test updates, in-line baggage screening is operational at Srinagar, Chandigarh, Chennai, Goa, Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Lucknow, Varanasi, Jai­pur, Trivandrum and Calicut airports.

Meanwhile, commissioning of the in-line bag­gage system at the Lal Bahadur Shastri In­ternational Airport has facilitated passengers to move forward, up to check-in counters without any queue for baggage X-ray, saving time for both passengers and the aircraft. The airport also plans to implement a passenger baggage trolley retrieval system.

Electronic gates

Electronic gates are used as barriers at many airports so as to segment passengers in various stages of departure. Passengers can self-scan their boarding pass so as to move into the boarding area. Major airports such as Delhi and Mumbai are using these gates at im­mi­g­ration counters, wherein passengers are only able to pass once they have cleared all the formalities. Mumbai airport has also capitalised on touchless check-in technologies.

Role of AI and ML

In April 2022, the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel In­ternational Airport (SVPIA) introduced an indigenously developed artificial intelligence (AI)-based surveillance service, “Desk of Good­ness”, to help flyers through smart detection te­ch­niques. The Desk of Goodness aims to se­rve passengers such as senior citizens, women with infants and passengers in need of a wh­e­e­l­chair. The system also detects incidents such as a fall or abnormal passenger behaviour. This desk is manned by a team equipped with smart tabs, which keep them updated on possible sites where passengers need support.

In the AI-based system, surveillance cameras raise alerts on detecting anomalies in flyer behaviour by utilising special algorithms. The staff members receive alerts on their tabs and are able to assist the passenger. They are also trained to respond to alerts in less than 45 seconds. At present, the departure area at Ter­minal 1, covering six lanes of the departure and arrival areas and pre and post-security areas are covered under this system.

Bengaluru International Airport Limited (BIAL), operator of the Kempegowda Interna­tio­nal Air­port, Bengaluru, is collaborating with Ama­zon Web Services (AWS) to establish a Joint In­nova­tion Centre (JIC), which will drive the development and adoption of digital solutions in aviation. The JIC will also enable start-ups to accelerate innovation in aviation, smart infras­tru­cture, utilities and mobility by providing com­pre­he­nsive programme offerings and a technical platform that helps customers innovate quickly, utilising AWS technology. This is the first JIC by AWS established outside China and is the first JIC dedicated to advancing the aviation industry.

The JIC is expected to be operational at Bengaluru airport in 2022. It will focus on driving digital innovation for the airport and will help strengthen BIAL’s digital road map and de­velop custom solutions for Bengaluru airport, using a combination of technologies in­clu­ding cloud computing, blockchain, internet of things (IoT), analytics, ML, AI, robotics, and au­gme­n­ted and virtual reality.

It will focus on developing technology solutions to enhance passenger experience ac­ro­ss retail, dining and entertainment at the airport and achieving operational efficiencies for BIAL. Once implemented, the system can be sc­a­­led to other airports in India and globally. Further, in September 2021, IBM and BIAL an­n­oun­ced a 10-year agreement under which IBM and Kyndryl will provide internet technology-ba­sed solutions to create a new “Airport in a Box” platform. This platform will help transform te­c­h­nology, operations, as well as customer experience.

Digi Yatra: Use of biometric scanning

The Digi Yatra initiative, launched in 2017, aims to make air travel paperless and hassle-free in India. It proposes to simplify passenger-related processes at various checkpoints at the airport by using facial recognition technology-based biometric scanning. Reportedly, as of April 4, 2022, the first phase of Digi Yatra will be implemented in major airports across the country by March 2023. The facial recognition tech-based boarding system will be rolled out at airports in Kol­ka­ta, Varanasi, Pune, Vijaya­wada, Bengaluru, Delhi and Hyderabad. In 2021, this system was implemented for a trial period in these airports. Air­ports that plan to opt out of this system can still use the existing boarding process.

Meanwhile, the Noida International Airport (NIA), a new airport in Jewar, Uttar Pradesh, is be­­ing established with an eye towards digital transformation. The NIA, which is expected to become operational by the end of 2024, will of­fer a contactless passenger journey as soon as its doors open to the public. The NIA will take advantage of India’s new Digi Yatra system. At the NIA, Digi Yatra is expected to reduce the printing costs associated with boarding passes. ICAD Holding is acting as the airport’s master system integrator for the project and is bringing along internet technology specialist Wipro as a partner and a sub-consultant. ICAD and Wipro will ensure that different components are interoperable with one another and integrated with the rest of the airport itself. The NIA is being planned as India’s first fully digital airport and is supposed to operate with net zero emissions once completed.

Navigation safety

Goa airport has become the first airport in India to have installed the latest technology in do­ppler very high frequency omni range (DVOR) system for safe navigation of flights. The DVOR system gives information to aircraft on route positions and emits signals, which ma­ke the aircraft un­derstand that they are on the right route.

IoT-enabled baggage trolleys

The Rajiv Gandhi International Airport in Hy­dera­bad introduced IoT-enabled smart baggage trolleys in 2020. It facilitates passengers to ke­ep a tab on the availability of baggage trolleys in real time across the airport. Report­edly, the air­port has deployed a long-range IoT platform for the Airport Baggage Trolley Project and linked its entire fleet of 3,000 baggage trolleys with IoT technology. This system helps people save time during travel.

In January 2022, the Indira Gandhi Inter­national Airport operator, Delhi International Airport Limited (DIAL) has commenced installation of an integrated cart system (ICS) at the air­port’s Terminal 1. This luggage handling sol­ution will have more capacity and speed and the radio frequency identification-enabled ICS will ensure error-less sorting of baggage.

Smart airports: The way forward

Going forward, many airports are planning on deploying digital interventions to ease operations and enhance passenger experience. Chennai airport is planning to implement multi-zone metal detectors, a gate management system, a two-dimensional verification scanner sy­s­tem and a trunk mobile radio system. The Mangaluru International Airport, which has four common-use self-service kiosks, plans to inc­rease the number in a phased manner. Of the four kiosks, three are enabled to print both the boarding pass and the baggage tag.

In times to come, technologies that will de­fine future aviation are advanced self-service, fa­cial recognition and biometrics, robotics and automation, contactless technology, IoT-enabled baggage trolleys, AI and ML. For digital trans­fo­rm­ation to be effective, airports should select the right technology partners and identify a mo­del that caters to its needs and customers. The aviation industry can deploy advanced technologies for the simplest things and gradually grow into a full-fledged digital ecosystem.