By Gillian Jenner
In a world where people casually tout the term disruptive technology, there are few predictions as sure as the coming of the Internet of Things and its potential to change the way we live, travel, and operate businesses. As with all buzzwords, the Internet of Things (IoT) is a concept readily bandied around and just as easily misunderstood. What is IoT? It is things joined up. What things? Any physical object or device, domestic appliances, vehicles, baggage handling equipment, you name it. The limit is our imagination, not the number of devices or objects.
Forecasts about how many things will be connected in the next few years are mind-boggling. They range from calculations by tech researcher Gartner that there will be 25 billion connected things in use by 2020 to internet networking specialist Cisco ISBG's forecast of 50 billion connected devices. The crucial issue is that these devices will, for the most part, be communicating with each other to negotiate and organise themselves, communicating with people only to take instructions or report back.
Armed as we all are with smart mobile devices, people will also be nodes in this web of internet connections. "Through the devices we carry, we are all effectively IoT endpoints," says SITA technology chief Jim Peters. "Today, our location can be determined, our intent known, our next steps anticipated, our level of stress measured."
The technologies that enable IoT are not in themselves complicated: the latest version of the internet communications protocol, IPv6, which allows for trillions of nodes (or IP addresses) on the internet and wireless proximity-detecting technologies, such as Bluetooth low energy (BLE) beacons, radio frequency identification tags and near-field communications.
As Peters notes, much of the innovation is focused on enabling IoT devices to communicate. Google recently announced Brillo, an underlying operating system for IoT devices, and Weave, a cross-platform common language that will let devices communicate with each other locally and via the cloud.
For the airline sector, IoT offers multiple opportunities to improve operational efficiency and offer increased personalisation to passengers. It may even have the potential to change business models. In fact, there is so much opportunity that the challenge currently is where to focus efforts.
Among airlines that have started experimenting with IoT, there are projects to improve passenger experience, baggage handling, tracking pets in transit, equipment monitoring, and generating fuel efficiencies. However, in an industry still struggling with integration across legacy systems chief information officers face challenges in getting the underlying architecture right as well as addressing security issues.
Most airline IT bosses are alive to the benefits IoT presents, reveals the 2015 Airline IT Trends Survey produced by SITA in association with Airline Business. Two-thirds of them believe IoT offers clear benefits for their airline right now and 86% say IoT will generate benefits over the next three years.
Today, 37% of airlines have already allocated a budget for IoT implementation, according to the study; however, over the next three years 58% are planning to invest resources into IoT, with the emphasis on pilot projects, although 16% are preparing for major programmes.
So what will this brave new world of connected things look like for aviation? Tim Graham, technology innovation and development manager at Virgin Atlantic, suggests numerous possibilities: "On the ground, it could be mounted displays, mobile or wearable devices combined with sensors... to either help passengers navigate their surroundings, identify themselves at check-in, lounge or boarding areas or track objects such as baggage and cargo."
He adds. "In the air, it could be intelligent aircraft cabins that have sensors built in to seats that could monitor passengers' tiredness, temperature or hydration levels to automatically change the cabin environment or alert crew to take a specific action."
We can expect that people will no longer negotiate their lives through a passive environment; instead, their surroundings will be quietly orchestrated by myriad automated processes.
For Dave Bartlett, technology chief at GE Aviation, IoT has the potential to alleviate some of the key pain-points along the passenger's journey for all involved, namely luggage handling and connecting between flights. "For example, being able to track your bags from a smartphone app or even the bags tracking your location. The bag senses when you enter the luggage area and selects the carousel you are standing closest to and enters that carousel. Another challenge is the anxiety felt by passengers over tight connections. Permission-based sensing of the passengers at airports could help airlines to make better informed decisions about when to wait and when to close the door. Imagine the gate texting you saying: 'I see you have landed. It appears to be about an eight-minute walk to your connecting flight gate. The gate will close in 12 minutes.'"
Sensors will aspire to manage and improve stress-points across the journey. "Infrastructure such as elevators, baggage carousels, travelators, kiosks, bag-drop stations [and] boarding gates will all have sensors. Both staff and passengers will be connected and equipment at the airport such as baggage trolleys and wheelchairs too," adds SITA's Peters. "Even transfer buses and trains and movements within car parks will be 'sensorised'. Within the aircraft, sensors will measure cabin temperature, air quality [and] light levels, and track catering equipment and duty-free trolleys."
The Airline IT Trends Survey reveals that broadly two-fifths of airlines are planning to use beacons at bag drop, baggage claim and check-in by the end of 2018. A minority of carriers deploy the beacons today.
For passengers, this will translate into a better informed journey, with around half of airlines planning to use them to deliver flight and gate information to passengers' mobile devices and to help passengers find their way to check-in desks, lounges or gates. Additionally, 40% of airlines plan to utilise them to provide their passengers with information about bag collection.
One airline singled out by Peters as already harnessing a range of data to enhance the travel experience of its passengers is EasyJet, which launched its Mobile Host initiative in partnership with London Gatwick airport in April. The project combines live data from the airport's systems with Google indoor maps and passenger booking details, location and flight time to provide personalised instructions and updates for passengers. These include check-in reminders, directions to bag drop, departures and gate location, plus real-time gate and baggage-belt push notifications direct to their mobile phones.
"At EasyJet, we're focused on making travel as easy as possible for our customers and using innovative technology across our customer journey and operation," says James Millet, EasyJet's head of digital. "Our Mobile Host initiative is a great example of this – customers benefit from relevant messages, live gate, baggage belt and airport mapping on our mobile app to support their experience.
"Our Apple Watch app which was available on launch day offers the latest flight information through notifications, currency and weather information as well as boarding passes through Apple Passbook. We've had some great feedback from our Generation EasyJet customers and a number of frequent flyers who are tech-savvy and look for innovation to make their travel as easy as possible." He adds: "The IoT trend will undoubtedly create opportunities across our operation and customer journey."
Elsewhere in the industry, IoT initiatives are similarly small-scale and tightly focused on bringing improved value to airlines and their passengers. This year's Airline IT Trends Survey indicates that check-in is the passenger journey stage that will benefit most from IoT technologies – 42% of airlines say it is the top priority and 56% say it is in their top three.
US carrier JetBlue has been experimenting in this area since July 2014 by fully automating the check-in process for customers who have booked its "Even More Space" seats on domestic flights. At 24h before their flight, these passengers simply receive a ready-to-print boarding pass via email, plus an option to download a pass via the JetBlue iOS or Android mobile apps. Additionally, the airline has a 24h window in which to flag and correct any information inconsistencies or issues with special service requests that would otherwise remain unresolved until the passenger arrives at the airport.
"The idea of asking customers to jump an additional hurdle before their flight is an increasingly antiquated concept," says Blair Koch, JetBlue vice-president of commercial and shared development services. "By having the right systems in place, we can remove this step, and even help identify and prevent issues that can hinder customers from fully enjoying their travel experience."
Baggage handling is also high on the list of journey stages that will benefit from IoT: 40% of airlines have earmarked bag drop in their top three priorities and 30% say bag reclaim. Tracking bags like you would a parcel via your mobile device is still in its infancy, although Delta Air Lines has enabled its customers to keep a virtual eye on their luggage throughout the journey via its mobile apps since 2011. Earlier this year, Delta Cargo launched a pet-tracking service on domestic flights as part of its GPS tracking services, allowing customers to monitor the humidity, light and temperature that their pet experiences, as well as the animal's location.
Meanwhile, Emirates Group's IT Innovation Lab has trialled embedding beacon technology into bag tags to improve both the operational and customer service aspects of baggage management at Dubai airport. Neetan Chopra, the airline group's senior vice-president of IT strategic services, reports that BLE beacons have been deployed in test mode to assess customer navigation and personalised services based on the passenger's location in the terminal. On the operations side, Emirates is currently piloting beacons to track engineering assets such as toolboxes and to monitor the condition of equipment such as life jackets without necessarily having to physically inspect them.
Moving beyond the experimental stage, GE's Flight Efficiency Services has been working with AirAsia since 2012 to utilise IoT – or the "industrial internet" as GE dubs it – to increase aircraft utilisation and reduce operating costs throughout the low-cost carrier's network, with a target of bottom-line operational savings of $30-50 million over a five-year term.
Together, GE and AirAsia harnessed the industrial internet to develop a business case that secured approval from Malaysia's Department of Civil Aviation to taxi on one engine on departure. This first for a Malaysian airline translated into saving in excess of 60kg of fuel per flight. Another project, rolled out in 2014, is the collection of data generated by the aircraft and its systems into a fuel management dashboard that also integrates operational, weather, trajectory correction, navigation, and terrain data. This tool has allowed AirAsia to optimise climb profiles, plan taxi and contingency fuel needs, and minimise the use of auxiliary power units.
However, today's use of IoT technologies for greater efficiency is scratching the surface compared with what could be achieved in the future. "IoT applications could improve overall fuel cost (not just the consumption) taking into account energy prices, when/where to refuel, optimal flight and taxi paths as well as when/how much to hedge for the fuel," says GE's Bartlett. "Beyond that, IoT applications could look at network optimisation, in particular the irregular operations recovery options as they continue to try to maximise the utilisation of their fleet while keeping a robust schedule."
It is pretty clear there will be a need to manage vast amounts of data chatter and often provide heavy-lift data processing to devices that do not innately have that capability. Herein lies a key challenge for airline chief information officers.
"The volumetric will grow exponentially as sensors, beacons, wearables all start beaming information, connecting to each other as well as enterprise applications. In addition, IoT environments work in real time. This mesh of big and fast data and real-time cadence will need to be addressed in the architectural framework," says Emirates' Chopra.
Chief information officers' focus, he suggests, should be on getting the architecture right for IoT. "A key component of the IoT framework will be the middleware platform, which will manage the enormous amount of messages generated at speed. Also, the IoT value will only come alive if smart machine learning algorithms are able to garner insight from the data collected from the sensors and suggest actions in real time. Such architectural components will be crucial to making IoT happen and driving true business value out of the implementations."
Another issue will be the airline sector's dependence on legacy systems. "Right now, there are a lot of competing technologies and frameworks out there when it comes to the IoT. If you combine this with the legacy technology that many airlines face, there's a lot of work to be done on interoperability. The starting point is to build IoT gateways and application programme interface layers to ensure that you have a platform that you can build from," advises Virgin's Graham.
While individual IoT devices may not be expensive, mass deployments will add up. Then, as Graham notes, you will have maintenance overheads and – with devices and protocols rapidly changing – interoperability costs. "It's therefore important to ensure that thought is given to the real value and insight that the data collected by these devices gives the organisation and, ultimately, the passenger or employee. That's why I think we'll start with tactical deployments and then start looking at what else the devices can do or other ways of using the data being collected."
Airline will need to gear their business processes to cope with the fast-paced data environment. "We will see airlines investing to develop services that can receive, process and understand the streams of data, and then integrate it into existing airline processes," predicts SITA's Peters. "An additional challenge will be the need to change business processes to be more nimble and responsive to incoming IoT intelligence. Effective process change will also require investment of resources."
Another challenge will be security. "Securing connected machines has a unique set of complexities that are very different from protecting a data centre," says GE's Bartlett. "In addition to software platform security, there is a need for protecting critical infrastructure and helping to ensure the reliability of industrial internet operations for airlines and passengers."
In a rapidly evolving IoT landscape where the big rewards are in the future, how should chief information officers start making the business case for IoT today? In the view of Virgin's Graham, it's all about generating value.
"Target the areas where you can demonstrate improvements in customer experience or employee productivity and deploy tactical solutions for those use cases," he says. "That will help build awareness around IoT and also start collecting data and information that could be used to unlock other opportunities. It's all about showing the business what is possible and what the technology could do for them and their customers."
Finally, as we move into a world that is monitored and orchestrated by sensors, the airline community as a whole will need to give careful consideration to how it creates and maintains passengers' trust that these processes are genuinely benign. Ultimately what is perceived to be useful and what is perceived to be invasive will define how IoT evolves.