The future of flying: Airports turn to technology to reduce delays

The summer has been difficult for air travel. But the disruption is pushing the industry to innovate. In this four-part series, we’ll look at how new technologies are changing the way we fly.

On a clear day last November, Nicholas Zeeb stood in a parking lot at Pearson Airport, dodging trains. About 20 meters above him, a dinner plate-sized drone hovered over the elevated train tracks that connect the airport terminals. On a signal from a spotter, Zeeb slammed the controls and sent the drone soaring into the air moments before a train rumbled.

Usually, a young man piloting a drone on airport property would – quite literally – set off alarm bells. But Zeeb, owner of an aerial videography company ZeeDrone, was there at Pearson’s request. It was testing whether drones could perform a regular safety inspection of the 1.5 kilometer runway. Standing next to him, a structural engineer from Entuitive wearing a virtual reality headset watched live footage from the drone’s high-resolution camera, getting a close look at an area that had been identified as needing attention. during a previous pass.

The inspection is usually carried out by workers coupled to the track, which requires the train to be stopped for up to six weeks. But the drone test showed the process could be accomplished in just 10 days, without disrupting service.

“We destroyed previous inspection time – much to my bragging rights,” says Zeeb.

Later this summer, Pearson will switch to using drones for the official biennial inspection, removing a cause of hassle and delays for passengers using the replacement bus service.

The move is just one small step in a much larger trend unfolding as the world’s largest airports face brutal arithmetic: in the past 20 years, passenger numbers have more than doubled to globally, and they are expected double again by 2040. Many industry experts see increased use of technology as the only viable way to meet demand – a point underscored by delays and cancellations this summer.

“When situations like this happen, it really highlights the importance of automation,” says Sherry Stein, strategist at SITA, an industry-owned organization that provides technology to major airports. “The airport infrastructure is finished. You can only build so big, you only have a limited amount of land. So what are you doing to maximize how you use these resources? It has to be with automation and technology.

Automate for people

The idea of ​​a “smart airport” that buzzes with technology and transports passengers with the wave of a smartphone has been around for several years. But that is now starting to become a reality as airports experiment with new technologies in their operations.

One of the most visible expressions of this approach is the proliferation of robots in airports. Robots are used in at least six airports in Japan, where they clean the halls and give directions. Germany’s Frankfurt Airport tested a particularly adorable version that will even carry your hand luggage while guiding you to your boarding gate. Meanwhile, in Lyon, France, seven robots – apparently all called Stan – are providing valet parking up to 2,000 vehicles.

Automated passport control gates are increasingly being used to expedite passengers through arrival halls in Asia, Europe and, more recently, Canada. And in the United States, Delta Airlines recently unveiled facial recognition technology that allows select domestic passengers with TSA Precheck to walk through the gate without showing any ID other than their face.

Pierre Lanthier, director of IT strategy and innovation at Pearson, is looking at ways to use technology to eliminate some of the surprises in travel caused by changing COVID rules and recent disruptions. In July, the airport began publishing pedestrian traffic information based on recent data to tell passengers if they will reach peak times in the terminals. He also plans to use existing ceiling-mounted smart cameras to monitor the length of queues at security and check-in and post that information online in real time.

But Lanthier’s long-term goals go further than that. “We are working on concepts around a digital concierge,” he says. “We try to broaden our horizon beyond the physical structure of the airport and meet the needs of a passenger from departure to return.”

It doesn’t just tell you that your flight is on time and check-in and security lines are short. He wants a service that could also offer you to call an Uber when the time is right, give you directions to the UP Express, or let you order food in advance.

“We really want to ease the anxiety and tension created in travel by providing information but also a common portal for value-added offers,” he says.

disruptive disruption

These changes will all add convenience and enliven a journey with touches of technological magic. But some of the most important innovations happen in less noticeable ways for passengers.

Air travel sometimes feels like a live demonstration of the butterfly effect – a rumble in Paris can trigger an unpredictable cascade of delays that cause chaos in Calgary. The aviation industry’s search for a solution inevitably led it to artificial intelligence, which excels at making sense of this kind of complex data.

Airlines and airports are increasingly using machine learning and concepts such as digital twins (detailed virtual replicas of real-world locations or systems) to predict potential disruptions and detect early signs of trouble. “It’s a way to react faster,” says Stein. “You can predict and anticipate maintenance activities, understand capacity modeling and be able to predict the impact of a flight delay.”

Airlines such as Delta and Alaska are using machine learning to plan their flight routes and model the potential answers weather disturbances. And several hubs in Europe and Asia have installed smart cameras that monitor planes at gates to signal if a step like refueling or baggage loading is taking longer than expected.

In May, air traffic controllers at Pearson began using smart new software to guide incoming planes onto the runway. The program analyzes live information, including weather and types of aircraft approaching, and recommends the most effective spacing between them. NAV CANADA, which handles air traffic control, says the system will reduce delays and reduce emissions because planes spend less time queuing than when controllers manually arrange planes. Pearson is the first airport in North America to adopt this technology, but it has been used at London Heathrow for several years, where it has reduced wind-related delays by 62 percent.

None of these technologies will be a silver bullet to address the challenges facing air travel. But aviation is an industry that excels at making small changes that make a big difference – it was, after all, an airline that was famous checked in $40,000 by removing an olive from his salads. Data by SITA also shows that technology use and passenger satisfaction levels are correlated, likely because users feel more informed about what is happening during their trip.

The real trick that airport managers must now pull off is to institute all this technology without disrupting the tens of thousands of passengers who pass through their terminals every day. Stein says this will require collaboration between airports, airlines and the government agencies that operate there. But as train-avoiding drone pilot Zeeb confirms, airports are high-pressure environments in which to try something new. “You double-check and triple-check everything because the consequences are significant,” he says. “It’s definitely not a stress-free process.”

David Paterson writes about technology for MaRS. Torstar, the parent company of the Toronto Star, has partnered with MaRS to shine a light on innovation in Canadian business.

About William Moorhead

Check Also

EDITORIAL: Vance faces the changes ahead | Opinion

Air Force pilot training has changed significantly over the years. These changes are accelerating, a …