When thinking about the future for airports, both as an industry and in the broad sense, it is wise to be pragmatic and try to differentiate what we want to happen from what is likely to happen.
After all, aviation is a constantly evolving business and what is considered essential today in terms of facilities and IT systems might not be necessary or even required by 2030.
As a result, future technologies won’t be limited to just simplifying each step of the air transport door-to-door flow process as we know it today and, in many cases, will eliminate some of the existing steps while triggering dramatic improvements in infrastructure design and space allocation.
So, what type of new technology can we expect to see coming to an airport near you in the short to mid-term future? Listed below are a few of the technologies that can potentially impact upon every one of the current processes that we go through today when we travel.
The desire to travel
Let’s start with a biggie, will people really want to travel by air so much in the future?
Future technology will arguably impact on the need for air travel. ‘Hyperreality’ technologies, which combine virtual intelligence, sensorial data transfer technologies and artificial intelligence, will directly compete with air travel in the future.
These technologies could provide a virtual destination experience to the potential traveller. There are several case studies out there of ‘experience rooms’ where customers can sense and feel as if they were personally interacting in virtual environments reproduced by artificial intelligence and imaging technologies.
These new technologies will effectively allow people to share real-time virtual experiences with other people physically located anywhere in the world.
Will this spark the death of air travel? I don’t think so as I believe that there will always be a need for air travel as a singular physical mobility experience, but honestly, hyperreality will likely reduce the long-haul air travel business class air travel segment.
Creating new experiences and travel segments
One of the growing opportunities that new aircraft technologies may bring to the airport environment is the development of new ‘experiential’ destinations, such as space travel.
Many companies around the world are developing commercial space travel concepts, which rely on ground infrastructure. Airports can leverage their strengths in infrastructure management by embracing these new aircraft technologies. In addition, space travel can be a commercial opportunity for medium and small sized airports in search of new business development ideas.
Ground transportation and inter-modality
One of the key success factors for airports in the near future will be their ability to become key players in the development of future multi-modal transportation concepts.
This includes integrating multi-modal information in existing airport operational databases; the development of infrastructure to support electric vehicles and sustainable ground transportation concepts; and last but very important, the mass adoption of mobility as a service via vehicle sharing and pooling.
The travelling public from each airport’s catchment areas will have a growing number of multi-modal transportation opportunities, including hybrid/electric aviation. Defining robust implementation strategies and leading its adoption will be a key success factor for airport operators worldwide in the coming years.
This will have higher impact on small, medium sized airports, which will benefit from the additional opportunities that electric and hybrid powered aviation will bring in terms of point to point commuting. In addition, the development of new gig economy business models may bring opportunities for aircraft sharing and pooling schemes.
Baggage processing is probably the area that will have a more dramatic evolution in the next ten to fifteen years. Imaging recognition technologies combined with networked belt scales and smart scanning capabilities could potentially create a unique ‘Image ID’ of a bag that can be used as its identification token, eventually replacing conventional barcodes, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and permanent bag tags.
The first step of the process could be to take a picture of your baggage with your smartphone at any point in time before drop-off and uploading it as part of a self-service mobile bag registration.
This step would allow you to use any common use bag drop – either in the terminal, kerbside at the airport or at a remote location such as a hotel, holiday resort or drive-through drop-off area – and simply drop the bag there. The automatic matching of the passenger’s biometric with the pre-loaded bag picture will make the process seamless and efficient.
Removing the need for tagging bags will be a major paradigm shift in baggage processing, which great benefits and efficiencies for passengers and all stakeholders.
From self-service to flow-through processes
Traditionally, the development of self-service opportunities has focused on making customers follow and replicate the same conventional processes previously performed by an agent.
However, as airports integrate additional technologies and we get better at exchanging real-time data in a service-oriented way via Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), in the future, it will be possible to redesign these processes from the ground up.
This means that many of the traditional self-service options will not be needed. Self-tagging, for example, will be redundant when bag tags are not needed anymore. And I fully expect to see the introduction of walk-through and/or drive-through bag drops, potentially taking the entire process off-site.
Boarding will be walk-through, and even flight re-booking will happen automatically by AI software. It is fair to say that the majority of self-service processes will be replaced by flow-through processes in the future.
Airport maintenance nanobots
Another key technology that will likely impact on airports in the next ten to fifteen years is the adoption of nanobots. These small robots will be designed to access those areas where a human being cannot access or would have difficulty accessing or carrying out a particular task.
Preventative maintenance and the monitoring of systems and infrastructure are just two areas where they could prove invaluable at airports.
This technology will potentially increase system availability and reliability, while allowing staff to focus on those heavy maintenance activities which are more difficult to automate.
Energy producing roadways
Many airports are implementing strategies to increase the use of electric vehicles (EV) for operational and multi-modal purposes. This will bring additional challenges related to battery management and charging port infrastructure.
Several companies are testing inductive charging technologies for EVs integrated in roadway pavements and parking stands, which will make it possible for vehicles to be charged while in use on the tarmac or when parked in specific stand positions.
These technologies, paired with a charging distribution software platform and a microgrid-based electric infrastructure, will provide enhanced opportunities of battery charging management.
We are seeing more and more examples of flexibility and maturity being built into the future development plans of airports and this can only lead to exciting times ahead for both airport operators and passengers.
In fact, airports today are leveraging their innovation and operational efficiency strategies on their way to providing additional opportunities for partnerships and continuous improvements worldwide.
Arguably, this means that the airport industry is on its way to achieving a user-centred, seamless and sustainable airport experience across the globe. And airports and aviation stakeholders are working hard to develop, deliver and maintain a flexible infrastructure and operational concept.
Embracing flexibility is a key opportunity for growth and operational efficiency, and a sound success strategy for small and medium sized airports and the communities they serve.