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IT Last modified on October 6, 2016

Living in a digital world

Blockchain technology was one of many high-tech initiatives under the microscope at this year’s Air Transport IT Summit, writes Joe Bates.

New blockchain technology and its potential to allow passengers to use a single token to travel through airports and across borders in the future was the hot topic at this year’s Air Transport IT Summit.

It is believed that the revolutionary technology could allow secure biometric authentication of passengers throughout their journey and eliminate the need for multiple travel documents without passengers having to share their personal data.

SITA’s technology research team, SITA Lab, is currently researching how using virtual or digital passports in the form of a single secure token on mobile and wearable devices could reduce complexity, cost and liability around document checks during the passenger journey.

 “Our vision is for seamless secure travel, but the underlying design of today’s computer systems means that there are multiple exchanges of data between various agencies and multiple verification steps, which reduces the ability to have a single global system,” said SITA’s chief technology officer, Jim Peters.

“Now blockchain technology offers us the potential to provide a new way of using biometrics. It could enable biometrics to be used across borders, and at all airports, without the passenger’s details being stored by the various authorities.”

And according to its backers, all this can be done without government agencies ever controlling or storing your biometric details as the required data is encrypted and stored on the mobile device of the traveller and never leaves their phone.

“When you read headlines like 60 million user IDs stolen from Sony and others about different companies getting hacked and all their customer information and credit card details being stolen, the way forward clearly isn’t to create a big database with everyone’s biometric details on it that becomes a honeypot for hackers to go after,” adds Peters.

“So, what you are using the blockchain for is to verify that the data on your phone has not been changed and that it has been certified. You control the data and whenever you want to use it your phone interacts with and acts a key for infrastructure such as a bag drop station, boarding gate or immigration gate.

“We are not there yet, and the big issue will be how do we get all this infrastructure to communicate with so many different devices as it doesn’t happen today.”

He is, however, convinced that technology like blockchain will become reality and as a result mean that in 20 years’ time it might be possible to walk straight from the kerb to the gate without stopping to queue at any airport checkpoint.

Explaining the single travel token concept, Sean Farrell, SITA’s head of portfolio management, government solutions, said: “The single token travel concept and Smart Path, which is basically our product portfolio, essentially involves rolling the passenger’s information as soon as you can in the travel process.

“This means capturing their travel documents and validating it. Checking their identity by confirming their biometrics in their travel documents and also validating their right to be on-board the aircraft in the form of their barcoded boarding pass, and then attaching the information to the live biometric that has been captured, and letting the passenger use that biometric as they go through the airport to verify themselves.

“So, such a system, has both security and facilitation benefits in terms of conducting higher standard security checks than we have today and improving the end to end process for passengers by enabling self-service, and allowing the different stakeholders in the airport to work together to streamline procedures to the point where some of the steps can be eliminated.

“Outbound Immigration checks would no longer be necessary, for example, and it would allow the security screening process to become more risk based, where people whose identity has been checked by biometrics can be given an expedited process.

“For the industry to get to this point, there are a number of challenges to overcome. Obviously they include technology issues, as the industry doesn’t have a lot of technology at the airport today to validate a passenger’s identity, even to the point where checks carried out on travel documents are very basic.

“There is also the issue of getting all the different stakeholders to work together, as collaboration is the key to unlocking all of these benefits. And we have to remember that every airport is different so we have to find a way of making sure the technology fits in with the environment in which it is being implemented.

“We have, for example, worked with some airports where the majority of passengers are in transit and the first time that you see them is when they show up at the boarding gate, having simply walked from the gate that they arrived at either minutes or hours earlier.

“Governments have a clear interest in this as well as it is in their interests that the people getting on aeroplanes are who they say they are.”

Explaining a little more about the security aspect of blockchain technology, Armin Armin Ebrahimi, founder and CEO of ShoCard, says: “It is significantly different to traditional databases in that you don’t have a single owner of an IT infrastructure who maintains it and ensures that its integrity is in place.

“The second important difference is that you can put data inside the blockchain, but once you have done so and it has been confirmed, it cannot be deleted or updated. This is not the case with traditional databases where data can be accessed and altered by different parties.

“A blockchain is in essence a public ledger, but because you cannot modify what’s there, security is significantly higher.”

The summit also gave most delegates their fist chance to see Leo, an innovative baggage robot, which is being trialled outside Geneva Airport’s Terminal 1.

Leo is a fully autonomous, self-propelling baggage robot that has the capacity to check-in, print bag tags and transport up to two suitcases with a maximum weight of 32kg. It also has an obstacle avoidance capability and can navigate in a high-traffic environment such as an airport.

Using robotics and artificial intelligence, bags will be collected, checked in, transported and loaded onto the correct flight without ever having to enter the terminal building or be directly handled by anyone other than the passengers themselves.  

Leo – named after the Italian Renaissance inventor and engineer Leonardo da Vinci who built what is now recognised as the world’s first robot – comes to the assistance of passengers as they approach the terminal building. 

Massimo Gentile, head of IT at Geneva Airport, says: “In a busy airport such as ours, the use of a robot such as Leo limits the number of bags in the airport terminal, helping us accommodate a growing number of passengers without compromising the airport experience inside the terminal. 

“It also proves the case for increased use of robotics to make passengers’ journey a little more comfortable, whether it is checking in baggage, providing directions or helping them through the security process.”

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