Improved wireless networks are essential to enable the digitization of airports and to take performance and safety to the next level, writes Richard van Wijk, head of global aviation practice at Nokia.
Given its dependence on the movement of people, it’s no wonder the aviation industry has been among the hardest hit by the pandemic. Countries locked, planes immobilized and airports emptied.
Upon returning from flights, airports have imposed strict restrictions to ensure the safety of passengers and staff. They focused on health checks, maintaining social distancing, and the use of face masks. All of this meant deploying more staff when numbers needed to be kept to a minimum.
Some airports have implemented thermal detection and remote monitoring to mitigate the risk. But as the pandemic progressed, borders opened and closed in the blink of an eye and governments enforced new regulations almost daily, forcing airports to respond increasingly quickly.
Airport 4.0 and economic recovery
Clearly, to quickly comply with changing requirements, airports needed a flexible and robust digital infrastructure. By becoming digital hubs – and embarking on the transformation to Airport 4.0 – they could harness the capabilities of connected sensors to benefit from widespread automation at the terminal and airside.
By enabling them to digitize processes and reduce paper and pencil activity, they could reduce costs and achieve operational efficiencies and strategic goals.
To facilitate this, airports need to move away from fixed cable networks to take advantage of greater flexibility in asset placement and allow airside wireless services. The reason? Those who depend only on fixed networks cannot react quickly enough. Imagine the time (and cost) of connecting new sensors at an airport using Ethernet cables.
It also requires moving away from shared public cellular and Wi-Fi networks. These are susceptible to airside interference, as well as congestion during peak traffic. They simply do not provide the reliability and connectivity required by new digital applications.
Airport 4.0 is based on the implementation of an industrial-grade private wireless network. By adopting their own private wireless network, airports can quickly and “wirelessly” connect applications, sensors, remote buildings and other assets in a secure manner.
During the pandemic, Brussels Airport, for example, quickly implemented changes by leveraging a resilient private wireless network. It introduced capabilities to show how its compliance with distancing regulations and quickly set up a rapid on-site COVID testing facility.
Learn to fly through the pandemic and beyond
As they work to keep passengers on the move, some airports and airlines are investigating digital travel passes using a combination of COVID testing, vaccination certificates, and electronic tickets on passengers’ mobile devices, to get closer to contactless travel and boost passenger confidence.
Beyond COVID, a strong private LTE or 5G network will give airports greater control to take advantage of new revenue opportunities, such as using their network to sell connectivity services to stakeholders. This will allow them to “cut the wire” with fixed networks and introduce applications that will further digitize their operations.
Airport stakeholders will benefit from unprecedented connectivity and real-time operational and situational awareness to improve response times and streamline airside operations such as maintenance and refueling as well as operations baggage handling.
Once again, Brussels Airport has shown how private wireless can facilitate new digital capabilities. Recent trials have used drones remotely controlled via 5G for security and surveillance activities, providing high-definition images and mapping wildlife around the runways. A drone detection system has also been deployed to test for unauthorized activity.
While there is no doubt that COVID has created challenges for the aviation industry, Airport 4.0 can offer airports a flight path to recovery and effectively reduce operational costs.
As we emerge from the pandemic, the introduction of flexible and resilient private wireless networks will allow airports to automate their operations and benefit from new security capabilities and air travel, as we once knew, is making a comeback.