Jun 22, 2022

12 min read

Using self-powered sensors to build smart airports

The world of today is no place for dumb things it would seem. If it ain’t got a “smart” prefix attached to it, it might as well not exist. Smartphones started the trend and now it’s caught on like a house on fire - smart houses, smart cities, smart air conditioners, well you name it. Hey, we’re not complaining - we love it. Guess what? In this post, we’re going to talk about the latest “smart” twist on a thing that is just not good enough in its dumb avatar anymore - the smart airport!

In an article we posted last year, we’d spoken at length about how IoT technology was all set to transform the aviation industry as we know it today. In this article, we’ll take a deeper look at how batteryless sensors are changing the world of aviation. 

Let’s face it, if you’re like the rest of us, you probably hate airports. Or maybe, you are far too moderate for hate - but any rate, you probably don’t love airports. Say, you’re playing a word association game, a la Skyfall - what do you reckon is the word that’ll spring to your mind when you hear airports - wait let’s guess - tedium? Pain? endless queues - oh wait that’s two words - but you get the point. 

Airports are just not fun - When you’re in them, there’s this perennial sense of - Isn’t there a better way to do this? seemingly hanging in the air. Can’t we work out how to solve the problem of identifying potential terrorists in a less boring way, with all our collective intelligence? IoT technology often has a way of doing just that - just like its predecessor and progenitor from the previous century - the internet - it has a way of seeing through the pain points that unite all of us in our exasperation - and solving them in one fell swoop. 

Well, it’s not quite that magical - but you get what we’re trying to say - IoT technology is sweeping through the modern world like a tornado, leaving behind a wondrous trail of innovation and disruption in its wake. In a sense, what we’re witnessing now is an evolution more than a revolution - IoT technology just takes all the epochal advances we’ve made in our ability to harness, distribute and synthesise information - with the internet - and blows the roof off by dramatically expanding the scope, scale and magnitude of computing power. 

What we’re seeing with IoT is essentially the internet unchained! It’s all well and good to say we’re all connected, but it’s hardly the case when it’s only our tablets, phones and laptops that are connected. That, in a nutshell, is IoT for you. It’s taking the internet out of computing devices and bringing it out into the world to play!

Alright alright! We get it - you guys love talking about IoT! But what’s this all got to do with airports?

Patience! Here’s why - To understand how IoT slots into pretty much anything, it is essential to see that IoT is better understood as a technology architecture - a framework if you will - than anything else. Which is why we keep drawing comparisons to the internet. So, the internet of things basically brings together a bunch of technologies towards a desired end result - say, making airports more tolerable for the irate traveller - or say, making them cheaper to run, which hopefully means you don’t need to pay quite as much for flight tickets the next time you go on holiday. 

No matter what the application - when IoT is used to restructure the way something has been done - it’s always in order to 

  • 1 Increase efficiency
  • 2 Decrease friction
  • 3 Cut costs
  • 4 Improve user experience

So, let’s use these metrics to see how IoT-based smart airports will make for significant improvements over the dumb counterparts. 

What’s the problem with regular airports?

What’s not wrong with regular airports - am I right? 

The airport experience of today has a lot of potential for improvement. Both in terms of the customer-facing front as well as operations. There are a number of typical airport experiences that just seem to have more friction than they need to. 

For example, let’s take a look at the typical airport experience - assuming it’s an international flight, the flyer shows up well over two hours in advance and joins a weary, obscenely slow moving queue. If they’re lucky, they can check-in their luggage sometime within the next hour or so, but not before having to perform the ungodly ritual of having to haul one’s suitcase on and off the carousel. After this, comes another line - for passport control. Say that goes pretty smoothly - not so fast! Yet another tiresome line! This time, you’re being frisked for explosives and such - we’ll stop here in the interest brevity but you get the point. When it comes to airports as we know them today, even the best-case scenario looks like an episode of Takeshi’s castle. 

But, this simply won’t do. This is not to suggest that implementing IoT solutions will fix all these issues magically but is more to highlight just how user-unfriendly airports have become. For the most part, we the consumers have allowed the aviation industry to get away with this. 

This is the problem that IoT is purported to solve - can IoT help make the airport experience less grating for flyers?

What is a smart airport?

The connected airport, otherwise known as the smart airport, is likely going to be the future of aviation. What is a connected airport you ask? A connected airport brings together an entire range of technologies, all aimed at making the airport process safer, more efficient and in doing so, improving the overall experience of fliers. 

The answer, as it is the case with everything IoT lies in - data. The more information we have at our disposal, the more effectively we can organise processes and plan the most effective interventions. Airports have already come a long way in terms of technology - In the past, airports were considered "smart" if they had an automated check-in system or a baggage drop. These days, however, with the advent of IoT technology, we're starting to see a new type of airport emerge - the connected airport. So what is a connected airport? Simply put, it's an airport that uses IoT technology to connect all aspects of the travel experience - from check-in to security to boarding. This allows for a more seamless and efficient travel experience for passengers.

Smart airports make use of connected technology in order to increase levels of connectivity between various operations within the airport facility - helping them work better together and achieve high levels of efficiency, synchronisation and economy of operation.  With all aspects of the airport connected, passengers can move through the airport with ease, without having to worry about missed connections or delays. Additionally, connected airports are able to provide real-time updates on flight information, security wait times, and gate changes - all of which can be accessed by passengers via their mobile devices. This allows travellers to plan their time at the airport more efficiently and avoid any potential disruptions.

Connected airports or smart airports make use of technologies such as the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, Self-powered sensors, bluetooth 5.0 and GPS in order to execute operations more effectively and also to provide their customers with a much more enjoyable and intuitive flying experience. 

In addition to a more seamless travel experience, connected airports also offer a number of other advantages. For example, because all aspects of the airport are connected, it's easier for airport staff to manage operations and ensure that everything is running smoothly. Additionally, connected airports are able to collect data on behaviour, which can be used to improve the overall travel experience. Finally, because they're connected, airports can easily add new features and services as needed - making them more flexible and adaptable to the ever-changing needs of travellers.

“Airports are constantly looking for ways to make the flying experience better for their passengers. One way that they are doing this is by implementing IoT technology into their operations. A connected airport is able to use sensors and data analytics to make smarter decisions, which ultimately leads to a better experience for flyers. For example, a connected airport can use data collected from sensors to determine how long security lines are and then allocate more staff members accordingly.”

Examples of IoT smart airport technology in action

There are several ways IoT technology manifests itself within the space of an airport. The essential ideas that unite all these use-cases is this - reducing lags, increasing efficiency, reducing costs, improving user experience.

This is done using large amounts of data that are gathered by wireless sensors - this information is fed into the wireless sensor network which contains a data processing arm - state-of-the-art analytics systems crunch these numbers and come up with valuable, actionable insights that can be used to actuate interventions directed towards more efficiency. 

Here are some common use-cases of IoT technology in smart airports - 

  • 1 Self-Service Check-In Kiosks
  • 2 Automated Passport Control Gates
  • 3 Baggage Tracking Systems
  • 4 Weather and Flight Information Displays
  • 5 Aircraft Maintenance Tracking
  • 6 Air Traffic Control
  • 7 Car Parking Systems
  • 8 Energy Harvesting

1. Self-Service Check-In Kiosks - Self-service kiosks are connected to the airport’s central database. They use facial recognition software in order to verify the identity of flyers and then proceed to check them in. This helps to reduce check-in times as well as queues at the airport.

2. Automated Passport Control Gates - These are gates that use facial recognition software in order to verify the identity of passengers. Once the identity of the passenger has been verified, they are then allowed to proceed to their next destination. This helps to speed up the process of passport control and also reduces queues at the airport - no more panic about being late for check-in. 

3. Baggage Tracking Systems - These systems make use of RFID tags in order to track the location of baggage. This helps to ensure that baggage is not lost or misplaced and also helps to speed up the process of baggage handling at the airport. The RFID tags can easily be tracked on the central airport database - much like your apple tags. 

4. Weather and Flight Information Displays - These displays are connected to the airport’s central database. They provide real-time information on weather conditions as well as flight information. This helps to keep passengers informed and also helps to reduce delays at the airport.

5. Aircraft Maintenance Tracking - This is a system that is used to track the maintenance needs of aircraft. This helps to ensure that aircraft are always in good working condition and also helps to reduce delays caused by aircraft maintenance.

6. Air Traffic Control - This is a system that is used to control air traffic. It makes use of wireless IoT sensors in order to track the location of aircraft and then provides instructions to pilots accordingly. This helps to ensure the safe operation of aircraft and also helps reduce delays caused by air traffic congestion. 

7. Car Parking Systems - These systems make use of wireless sensors to track the location of cars. This helps to ensure that cars are parked in the correct location and also helps to reduce congestion at the airport. Most of us don’t have to look very hard to remember a stressful experience with finding a parking lot at the airport or having to scramble with anxiety to find the parking receipt - IoT-based car parking systems can help ease this process and make it more user-friendly. 

8. Energy Harvesting Energy harvesting is another crucial technology that makes smart airports feasible - Energy harvesting enables batteryless IoT sensors These self-powered sensors make use of renewable energy sources in order to power the airport IoT system. This helps to reduce the carbon footprint of the airport and also helps to reduce costs.

Connected airports are the future

The potential applications of IoT in a smart airport context are many and varied - the examples listed here are more to give the reader an idea of what IoT can enable and why this is something airports in the world are keenly looking into - There are many more ways in which IoT can be used to optimise processes in the airport - The idea is this - they can help increase levels of efficiency at the airport and also provide passengers with a much more enjoyable and intuitive flying experience. In the future, it is likely that more and more airports will make use of smart airport technology in order to improve their operations.

So what does the future hold for connected airports? It's hard to say for sure, but one thing is certain - they're here to stay. As the benefits of connected airports become more and more apparent, we can expect to see them popping up in airports all over the world. So whether you're a traveller or an airport staff member, it's time to get connected!

About the author

Abishek Swaminathen

Senior Content Manager

Abishek is ONiO’s senior content manager. A medical doctor by profession, he stumbled onto a writing career almost by accident, as it were. Words have enthralled Abishek since the day he first held a book and at ONiO, he channels his inner wordsmith towards providing our subscribers with regular doses of fun and informative content.

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