Ready for take-off
Written by: Philip Mason | Published:

Philip Mason looks at how the use of digital communications technology is helping Gatwick Airport to streamline its processes

Of the many sectors that are dependent on the use of comms, aviation is one of the most mission-critical, involving as it does life-or-death information being continually transmitted in real time. (It is arguably only rivalled by the energy industry, with its giant, interdependent – perpetually active – systems, which absolutely must not be allowed to fall over).

As well as the life-critical aspect, however, commercial aviation is also a quintessentially time-bound endeavour, within which everything needs to run like clockwork. Clearly, while you don’t want the aircraft to crash, you also need to make sure that it gets away on time, carrying the requisite fuel, passengers, gin, vacuum-sealed chicken dinners, sick bags and so on.

This is an area in which digital communications has made an enormous impact, with a variety of solutions now available to help staff on the ground keep on top of everything, both front of house and behind the scenes. One UK airport in particular which has embraced this technology is Gatwick, both via its recently developed ‘community app’ and in the use of APD’s IP-based communications system Cortex.

Linking it all together
Designed to be adaptable across numerous verticals, Cortex is a software-only ICCS (integrated communication control system) solution, through which users consolidate the different aspects of their internal business comms effort onto a single digital system. According to APD’s managing director Mike Isherwood, it has proved particularly useful in an airport environment because of the disparate nature of the tasks that need to be carried out by ground staff, as well as the potential number of different systems deployed across a single site.

Speaking of its use at Gatwick in particular, he says: “Communications taking place in the airport go straight through Cortex. That could be anything from two-way radio comms between staff on-site, a passenger calling for assistance at a help point, to communication with onsite emergency services.

“It also links elements such as access control, lifts and the CCTV system, something which is crucial when it comes to monitoring any security or terrorist-related situations. Gatwick wanted something incredibly flexible, which could be used as part of a 360-degree solution. That’s what we gave them.”

According to Isherwood, Cortex interacts with new and pre-existing legacy hardware (for instance, digital or analogue radio, telephone switches and so on) via the use of what he calls a ‘conversion module’. It subsequently ‘virtualises’ communications infrastructure, making it accessible all in one place through the use of a touchscreen, anywhere in the world.

Speaking of the interface itself, he says: “We’re able to be quite bespoke in terms of how people interact with it. For instance, we can resize the display, add concurrent users in different locations, as well as providing multiple views according to who is going to be looking at the screen. If we’re taking over existing systems, people generally want it to look as similar as possible because that helps with user acceptance.”

He continues: “Because the system is so comprehensive, the first thing we have to do before we think about installation is to sit down with the client and work out exactly what they want to achieve. In the first instance, that means looking at the technology they already have, which with Gatwick was essentially based around a 20-year-old Ericsson dealer board.

“For me, the really important bit comes in understanding how the organisation functions operationally, something which is necessary because of the degree to which comms now inform everything.

“After carrying out the initial low-level design process, we model their pre-existing workflow as part of a broader consultancy effort. The product is designed to be modular, meaning that you can take different elements and snap them into place on the screen. If you don’t have CCTV, we don’t add it.”

Dealing with queues
According to figures published by Airports Council International, as of 2016 Gatwick was the second-busiest airport in the UK after Heathrow, processing more than 43 million passengers a year. (The busiest airport in the world is Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, USA, which deals with more than 100 million customers per annum).

With that in mind, arguably the most pressing issues around workflow and logistics are those presented by large volumes of people moving around the airport at the same time. These obviously take in arrival and departure arrangements, but also safety and security, as well as efforts to keep passengers fed and watered while they wait for their flight to take off.

This is something which Gatwick has also started to streamline via the use of its ‘community app’, a recently developed solution providing staff with a constant source of data relating to every aspect of airport life. A parallel application, meanwhile – VisionAir – does the same for passengers, specifically looking at information around gates, flight times and so on.

Both apps were developed by AirportLabs, a technology company dedicated to working in this field. The company’s principal consultant Ligiu Uiorean, gives an overview of the community app, as well as the efficiencies that have been achieved through its use so far.

“We saw an opportunity at the beginning to develop a real-time communication channel for use by airport staff, with the focus on helping them make more informed decisions,” he says. “In the aviation sector, an improvement in efficiency of just a few per cent can make a massive difference, particularly if you’re dealing with millions of passengers a year.

“The airports we’ve worked with so far – Gatwick was our first client – have found it incredibly useful, particularly when it comes to things like queue reduction. For instance, by using the app, Dubai has now reduced its queue time from eight minutes to four and a half. That may not seem like much, but in an environment where everything needs to run exactly to schedule, it’s invaluable.”

He continues: “The app can also be used to mitigate any disruption if things go wrong, or there’s a delay. For instance, if a specific gate is no longer available, the fact that both staff and passengers know instantly makes it much easier to handle the movement of hundreds of people at short notice.

“At Gatwick in particular there’s a large number of short-haul flights, meaning that a delay could have a knock-on effect across the rest of the day. In the normal course of things, the same aircraft will visit the airport three or four times in the same 24-hour period.”

As mentioned, once downloaded, the app furnishes users with a plethora of relevant information, delivered in real time. The majority of this data is brought in from sources such as the Airport Operational Database (AODB), as well as third-party providers including train operators and the police. Going back to the subject of queues, meanwhile, pertinent information arrives via sensors dotted around the facility in optimal locations.

Speaking of how this intelligence is analysed and sorted, Uiorean says: “Once the data is integrated – we work entirely via the cloud – we have a very powerful engine which ascertains relevance, using a red, amber and green alerting system. We’re currently investing quite a bit in machine learning to improve on that even further, looking specifically at areas such as flow management and airfield optimisation.

“One thing we’ve had to be very careful about in all this is not to provide too many alerts, to stop people from becoming flooded with more information than they need. We’re currently enabling users to choose the kind of thing they want to be informed of, which again is proving to be effective.”

The community app was developed together with Gatwick itself as a way to replace its previous SMS-based alerting system which, among other things, was proving to be prohibitively expensive. The solution has since been adopted by 12 other airports across the world, including Edinburgh, Milan and the aforementioned Dubai.

According to Uiorean, the solution has evolved considerably since it was launched, providing a means for not just the dissemination of data but also – in the app’s next iteration – for its collection. This will allow staff themselves to provide real-time updates by reporting faults, issues around readiness checks and so on.

Speaking of the apparently endless, and often surprising, potential of the technology, he says: “Some interesting use-cases have come up, particularly with VisionAir. As you might imagine, one of the features of the app is letting people know where the nearest emergency exit is, something which thankfully doesn’t get used very often.

“In Dubai, however, it gets used five times a day because it can also point to the nearest prayer room. I’d like to claim that I came up with that, but I didn’t.”

Commercial aviation is currently facing numerous challenges, ranging from questions around commercial viability to the seemingly never-ending threat from global terrorism. Thankfully, digital communications technology is proving invaluable in helping to make sure the wings don’t come off.

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