How digital twins can enhance airport efficiency
Throughout a passenger’s journey at an airport there are multiple interaction points with different teams and services – from the check-in desk through to duty free shopping, on-board catering experiences, and land transportation once they have arrived at their destination.
An airport is essentially a passenger-processing facility and if you can process passengers more quickly without investing in new and expensive buildings and infrastructure, reasoning suggests that profits will go up while still allowing passengers to enjoy a more seamless experience.
“Every airport is kind of a business system,” acknowledges data governance lead at Heathrow Airport, Segun Alayande. “It comprises of organisations that are all trying to meet the needs of the traveling passenger.”
“With this objective, they all have to work together, and they need to communicate in order to cater to the travelling passenger’s experience,” Alayande adds.
With a background in behavioural science and psychology, Corey Gray, global CEO of Smart Cities Council says: “What we’re really dealing with here are issues of human behaviour and how we can use new tools to create better outcomes for people in places.”
Smart Cities Council, a global member organisation which champions the use of science, data and technology, is also “about creating a safer, activated, resilient, sustainable spaces”, says Gray.
Among other airports, “Segun and I both agree that [London’s] Heathrow airport could do a lot better,” in this aspect, Gray opines.
So how might industry 4.0 technology help improve the passenger experience at airports like Heathrow?
Taking off with digital twins
Now, with a real time virtual model of an airport – a digital twin – airports can help anticipate changes and design seamless passenger experiences before they are physically implemented.
If you can imagine a video game representation of an airport, this is what a digital twin might look like – except the machines and people are all optimised to reflect real-time events that accurately display how these moving parts act in the space.
“The one thing that’s fundamentally important is that digital twins are as good as the data that goes into them,” Gray adds.
For technology firm Vantiq, its digital twins represent what the foot traffic is like throughout the day, in different spaces in an airport.
The use of camera data meant that Vantiq could track the motion of the passengers and create a twin that highlighted areas of the airport which had too much foot traffic at certain times of the day, and other areas that were being underused.
“So now that you have a good understanding of the data coming from your team, you can start running a simulation and be able to understand what actions you can take,” adds Vantiq project manager Mark Munro.
From Gray’s perspective, digital twins can help solve problems such as cost savings and risk reductions, and then can also deliver social, environmental, and governmental benefits.
However, he adds “We need to first understand who our stakeholders are, and then be really clear about what our stakeholders need, want, and what their aspirations can be.”
Frequent flyers may have noticed in the last decade that queueing systems at security is a lot more unified through allocating numbered slots at one side of the x-ray machine to allow multiple passengers to unpack electronics and liquids in one go, and then more spaces to repack their items at the other end.
A digital twin would be able to calculate and present this system before its implementation – which not only makes the travellers experience more pleasant, but also means they can spend more time on the other side to “do more shopping, eat lunch, and have a glass of wine,” says Gray.
Heathrow’s airport management is currently looking at digital twinning at airports to facilitate the faster movement of more passengers through the airport.
Heathrow’s digital twins will also look at how best passenger luggage can be transported in a virtual twin, under the same roof as various deliveries of airline food, equipment, in a much more efficient way.
As such, digital twin deployment may also require less staff – something which proved to be important last year, as many airports throughout Europe and the US struggled with long queues for check-in, security and luggage due to staff shortages.
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