How the Internet of Things improves air travel

Let’s face it: These days, flying is the pits. Here are some ways the industry is using IoT technology to make the friendly skies a little friendlier.

Air travel has come a long way since the dark days of 2001. Security remains a concern, but the industry is paying increasing attention to innovation and customer service, and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies are playing a big role in efforts to make aviation more efficient and improve the passenger experience. As the costs of Internet-connected sensors and networking equipment continue to plummet, airlines, airport operators, airplane manufacturers and other travel and aviation industry suppliers are finding new ways to deploy and use IoT technologies.

IoT-related developments in the air travel market could be applicable in many other industries. For example, IT managers in retail may find inspiration from the ways IoT technology is being used at Miami International Airport. And aircraft and engine makers have found applications for connected systems that could be beneficial to companies throughout manufacturing and heavy industry.

Improving the traveler experience at Miami International Airport

As a primary hub for travelers heading to the Caribbean, Latin America and beyond, Miami International Airport is one of the busiest airports in the United States. In 2015, more than 21 million passengers went through the airport. In such a high-traffic environment, traditional approaches to improving productivity will not suffice. That’s why the airport turned to Internet-connected sensors and IoT apps to improve the travel experience.

[Related: Travel apps riddled with security flaws]

In February, the airport introduced a mobile app called MIA Airport Official. Available for iOS and Android, the app is designed to provide detailed information to passengers based on their location and needs. According to airport officials, it has been a hit. “We had 3,000 downloads on the first day, and it has been great to see the positive feedback from travelers,” says Maurice Jenkins, division director for information systems at Miami International Airport. The airport’s IT team developed the app in partnership with SITA, a technology company specializing in air transport communications and information systems.

The MIA Airport Official app relies on a network of 400 beacons that transmit location information throughout the airport. Each beacon “is about the size of five quarters in a stack, so they are easy to deploy and install,” Jenkins says. “For passengers, the app provides personalized directions through to airport and helps passengers to find restaurants, services and baggage carousels based on their location.” In the future, the app may gain the capability to provide estimated wait limes at security checkpoints and customized marketing messages.

“Our management is very interested in the data produced by the app, because it helps them to understand passenger behavior better. For example, we can understand and forecast times of peak demand better and plan accordingly,” says Jenkins, adding that airport officials are studying the data to identify opportunities for improvement.

Delta improves maintenance, pet travel with IoT tools

In October 2015, Delta Air Lines partnered with Bit Stew Systems to deploy analytics systems on part of its fleet, with the goal of improving maintenance. “Aircraft maintenance is a significant challenge for the industry. Diagnosing problems can take days with existing methods,” says Franco Castaldini, vice president of marketing at Bit Stew, a maker of a software platform for industrial Internet systems.

Before joining Bit Stew, Castaldini led product marketing for GE's Energy Management software systems while working in the company’s Software Center of Excellence. That background gives him perspective on both sides of the IOT trend: deploying sensors (e.g. on GE’s engines) and creating analytics software to make sense of the data (with Bit Stew).

Travelling pets also benefit from Delta’s technological innovations. Using tracking technology from Sendum Wireless, the airline now offers GPS tracking for pets shipped. The system provides real-time location, temperature and humidity data. As of 2015, the service was offered at several U.S. airports, including facilities serving Atlanta, Los Angeles, Memphis, Salt Lake City and Tampa, Fla.

Innovations from aviation manufacturers

IoT technologies are also being used in innovative ways in the airplane manufacturing industry. “General Electric’s newer engines are packed with sensors that collect data on performance, which informs planning and maintenance,” says Jim Peters, CTO at SITA. “In 2015, we saw increasing adoption of beacon technology to improve the passenger experience. We also saw movement toward real-time analytics.”

As an example of the potential for IoT-related innovation in the aviation industry, Peters cites the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, saying that plane is essentially “a flying data center, when you consider all the sensors and data processing capabilities it has.” Given that Boeing has already built more than 300 Dreamliners, that flying data center is quickly becoming an industry standard.

[Related: 10 'smart luggage' options for tech-savvy travelers]

Smart luggage for techies on the go

The race is on to develop “smart luggage” products, as startups and established luggage companies see a market opportunity for suitcases equipped with sensors, GPS capabilities and other features designed to help travelers keep track of their bags and more.

Designers Harry Sheikh and Joseph Pagan of Planet Traveler USA raised more than $900,000 from nearly 2,000 people on Kickstarter in 2015 to create the Space Case 1, a smart bag with GPS, fingerprint locks and speakers. The Space Case comes in a carry-on model and a larger check-in model.

Another startup that’s getting a lot of crowdfunding support to develop smart luggage is Bluesmart, whoseIndiegogo campaign raised over $2 million from more than 10,000 supporters. According to Bluesmart, its product is a smart carry-on that you can control from your phone, using an app to lock and unlock it, weigh it, track its location and even get a notification if you leave it behind.

Not to be outdone, large companies are also getting into the smart luggage business. In 2015, Samsonite partnered with Samsung to develop a smart bag. The unnamed product is reported to have GPS capabilities. No release date has been provided. If it’s anything like Space Case 1 or the Bluesmart bag, it could well be a carry-on with GPS support, Bluetooth capability and an integrated smartphone app.

There are unanswered questions about security concerns that federal aviation officials and airport authorities have with regard to smart luggage. But while the potential for abuse of the technology remains an issue, the questions are likely to be resolved. Consider this: 10 years ago, in-flight wireless Internet service was nearly unheard of. Today, several airlines offer Wi-Fi, including American Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest, United and various international carriers. If it’s possible to build and deploy a system that helps harried travelers find their way around a busy facility like the Miami International Airport, that’s proof that things can change in the air travel industry. If that example and those of Delta, Boeing and GE set a trend, the smart luggage security challenge is likely to be solved eventually.

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