We are on the cusp of a new wave of mobile technology that will radically transform the working practices of airport staff.
It will allow aircraft technicians to be guided through complex maintenance issues by off-site experts; ground crew to remotely control equipment such as aircraft heaters; and bus drivers to be automatically routed to their next task.
Based on their status and location, it could also allow fire crews to layer a virtual 3D map over real life so see through the thickest smoke in the event of an emergency.
This is all thanks to next-generation visual collaboration, machine-to-machine communications (M2M), mobile workforce applications and augmented reality to improve safety.
Visual collaboration combined with mobile communications will help speed up aircraft turnaround times. If aircraft maintenance technicians have a highly technical problem that they cannot rapidly solve onsite, they can use video-enabled PDAs to collaborate with specialists in the aircraft or engine manufacturers’ centres of excellence.
The use of high-definition video cameras on powerful Wi-Fi-enabled PDAs will allow the offsite specialist to see faults in great detail, so that they can recommend the correct part or fix.
The specialist will be able to remotely operate cameras (such as zooming or panning) and also interact with the local technician thanks to visual collaboration tools. Capabilities will include the ability to point to a specific part of an image or exchange documents on the fly.
Last year, mobile augmented reality (AR) caused a stir with consumer applications that layered useful information over real life images captured with a mobile phone. For example, it allowed consumers to hold up a mobile device in the street and see the locations of WiFi hotspots layered over the image.
There is great potential for AR in the airport environment. Fire crews could use an augmented reality application to see through walls and doorways when surrounded by dense, dark smoke. Such technology improves the safety of both fire crew and any persons caught in the incident and can be used indoors and outdoors.
Consumer technology like Google Maps will not be sufficient for this level of detail, however. A solution would need to be purpose built, with accurate 3D models of actual buildings and sites, detailing every doorway, window and hazard.
The application would also need to be cached locally on the device so that it can know the device’s exact location by triangulation between WiFi access points (GPS does not work well indoors, while wireless triangulation can be very accurate and reliable).
Augmented reality could also have a role in reducing the burden on customer services staff. Imagine a Chinese passenger arriving in France but not being able to interpret the characters in a Western alphabet and so requires assistance from airport personnel.
Instead, he could use an AR application on his smartphone to translate signs into Chinese. By simply pointing the device’s camera at the sign, it would translate the text in real-time, and layer it over the original sign.
The application can be built to recognise typefaces or barcodes, and the passenger could either download the application before they arrive, or once at the airport. Location-awareness will tell the application which airport and which language signs are likely to be in.
Machine-to-machine communication offers true process automation by allowing devices and equipment to be controlled remotely without manual intervention.
Consider how useful this would be to a ramp agent who has to position and switch aircraft heaters on and off all through a long winter’s night, running from one aircraft to another. On top of this responsibility, he also needs to undertake critical repair tasks.
By attaching a wireless sensor to the ground equipment, ground staff can quickly locate assets on a map and remotely deactivate or activate them. In addition, the ground handler has more accurate logs so that they can bill the airline for the fuel actually used.
SITA has found that an aircraft heater supported by its Mobile Workforce Solution consumes 20% less diesel, while billing accuracy is highly improved. This equates to real world savings of hundreds of euros per machine per month and return of investment below 24 months.
M2M sensors and tracking will also impact aircraft maintenance. A spare parts supplier might offer a pay-per-use pricing based on monitoring exactly how worn a tyre is, or could automatically track and re-order inventory.
Mobile workforce solutions
Aircraft maintenance teams often have to manage several aircraft turnarounds in parallel. Because emergency repairs can have a serious knock-on impact on routine work, airlines will frequently overstaff engineering teams.
Mobile workforce solutions can help by monitoring multiple tasks for technicians. This ensures that tasks are properly resourced and spare parts ordered over the air, rather than technicians having to return to the operations centre each time.
It can also reduce paperwork and errors, while aircraft can be repaired more quickly and with less disruption. SITA pilot studies show that maintenance, repair and overhaul organisations can save 5% to 10% in workforce labour costs alone.
Another option for the mobile workforce is improving the routing of passenger buses. At larger airports, dozens of buses may be running at the same time, driving passengers to and from their flight. However, flights don’t always keep to a fixed schedule and are sometimes early or late. To serve all flights consistently, an apron manager must quickly identify which bus is available and tell the drivers where they need to go.
A mobile solution using workflow scheduling and geo-location to identify the nearest available bus can relay task and routing information via wireless/3G/TETRA directly to the driver’s PDA.
By saving a few minutes, the mobile solution ensures flights are turned around as smoothly and efficiently as possible, and the ground handler has valuable business intelligence. It is estimated that 50% of the delays with aircraft turnaround could be avoided by this improved communication with ground crew.
Foundations for tomorrow’s technology
The infrastructure and technology to put intelligent, location and context-sensitive applications and services into the hands of airport ground workers is already in place.
These include mobile connectivity delivered by a combination of TETRA private mobile radio, 3G mobile/cellular networks and WiFi; powerful mobile computing devices, such as smartphones and netbooks; and a cloud computing back-end infrastructure.
In the coming years, new capabilities such as AR, will be added, totally changing the working practices of airport personnel.
The future airport will have flexible, agile and dynamic processes for managing both routine and unplanned tasks.
Airport World 2010 - Issue 5