The Internet of Things (IoT) seems to be in the same category of technology as blockchain, artificial intelligence and machine learning. Everyone has heard of it and knows it will be ubiquitous, but few really understand what it is or how it works.

IoT is the interconnection of everyday objects via the internet, turning them from ‘dumb’ to ‘smart’. This enables them to send and receive data – to ‘talk’ to each other – a development made possible by the huge strides made in mini-sensor technology, and data storage and analysis. Smart items include everything from cars to medical devices and toothbrushes. The number of such devices is difficult to fathom. However, as of mid- 2016, technology consultancy Gartner put the figure at 6.4 billion, excluding computers, smartphones and tablets. The firm expects 8.4 billion IoT-enabled devices to be in use worldwide by the end of 2017, and for total spending on related products and services to reach $2 trillion by that same date.

While impressive in itself, this figure is expected to grow rapidly. Gartner believes the number of smart devices will reach 20.4 billion by 2020. According to estimates by IHS Markit, a business intelligence firm, an even more impressive 30.7 billion devices will be IoT-enabled by the same year.

While the numbers are impressive, the benefits of this technology aren’t immediately obvious. Why would you want your fridge to be connected to the internet? What is the benefit of a light switch that can talk to a computer and how, exactly, is this relevant to readers of Future Airport?

Ready for take-off

The potential benefits to the airport industry are considerable, as a number of early adopters are discovering. London City Airport is a great example. In March 2013, it was awarded a grant by the Government’s Technology Strategy Board (now Innovate UK) to trial a pilot project.

A technology team installed a network of interconnected sensors linked to a central data hub aimed at tracking and analysing passenger behaviour at a series of touch-points throughout the facility.

Sensors and cameras were used to monitor the volume and flow-pattern of passengers to try to figure out the duration of different stages of journeys and where bottlenecks were likely to occur. Sensors were then linked with GPS, 3G and Wi-Fi to track airport infrastructure, such as steps and charging units, to optimise aircraft turnaround time. A third feature was an app that used traveller information to offer tailored services, giving notifications on flight times and passengers the ability to pre-order food or duty free goods.

“The project highlighted the sheer volume of data currently within the business that, if linked, could be used to drive internal operational efficiency, as well as provide useful services direct to passengers,” Matthew Hall, the airport’s chief commercial officer, told aviation website Total Blue Sky after the conclusion of the year-long project in March 2015. “The project has been great at highlighting some fantastic new technology that is able to address some very specific needs.”

Airlines have also taken up the idea. easyJet’s ‘Mobile Host’ initiative, in partnership with London Gatwick Airport, combines live data from the airport’s flight tracking systems with Google maps and passenger booking details to provide personalised information on things like check-in times, gate locations and time-to-gate, the status of the flight and of the baggage belt. Emirates, meanwhile, has tested embedding beacons into baggage tags, enabling luggage to be tracked throughout a journey.

According to Shane Zbrodoff, managing director of Pilot Project International, which was responsible for the installation of $80-million worth of technology at Calgary Airport, IoT has reached a tipping point. Instead of being an additional technical consideration and viewed very much as a bonus, it is part of the core operational and cost base of many airports.

That’s not to say that IoT systems are being liberally rolled out, but they must demonstrate a good return on investment. This means bringing one or more of the following benefits: lower operational costs, optimised business, increased customer services and supports, additional customers and a clear competitive advantage.

“In the past, the benefits of IoT devices were oversold by industry and somewhat misunderstood by airport operators,” says Zbrodoff. “However, many airports are now getting smarter in terms of what is useful to their operations and what is not.

“In other words, deploying IoT devices everywhere is easy compared with the massive overhead required to manage the amount of data. Pilot programmes now also provide a much clearer picture.”

Many of the projects that fall into this category are not in the areas that typically come to mind, such as optimising passenger flow and using data analytics to better target products and services.

They often fall into the category of remote monitoring, which, while not a big revenue generator, allows airports to allocate their resources more sensibly and save money over the long term.

“Some of the devices now coming on-stream at airports include things that move around, like luggage carts and wheelchairs, and even public service items, such as specific parking-spot monitoring,” Zbrodoff says. “Take, for example, Singapore’s Changi Airport. It tested smart waste bins that indicated when they were nearly full. The public gets a better service, and the duty staff no longer have to continually monitor the bins.”

Safety first

Another benefit of generic application is that it doesn’t require the capture of personal data. The risk of an IoT network being hacked, particularly one with as many potential access points as an airport, is very real, and many passengers do not feel that sufficient safeguards are in place.

Some of the devices now coming on-stream at airports include things that move around, like luggage carts and wheelchairs, and even public service items, such as specific parking-spot monitoring.

This is understandable. In October 2016, internet infrastructure firm Dyn suffered a sustained cyberattack conducted in part through IoT devices such as CCTV cameras and digital video recorders, according to security expert Flashpoint. Dyn provides technology for companies as large as Twitter, Amazon and Netflix, which gives an indication of the number of users who were at risk.

Airports are getting better at dealing with the threat, Zbrodoff suggests. From a technological standpoint, systems are far more secure than they were. Whereas before IoT systems were interlinked with Wi-Fi systems, now even basic IoT devices are encrypted and treated as security concerns in their own right.

Things have also improved on the governance side, due in part to changing regulatory requirements. In the EU, for example, the General Data Protection Regulation puts clear restrictions on the quantity and type of personal data that can be collected, and how it can be used and stored.

Despite the work that’s been done, passengers must still consider the risk inherent in IoT. There’s always a trade-off between the service offered and a potential security breach.

“When passenger data is used, and location or user information can be tied back to specific passengers, there must be some form of disclosure, and, where possible, an ‘opt-in/opt-out’ ability where the default is opt-out, with total privacy,” says Zbrodoff.

“In other words, a generic count of customers is fine. However, where names or data that can track a customer in their airport journey are exchanged between organisations, there must be privacy considerations.

“As for airport users, where they interact, they should ask questions and review any IoT offering, understanding the specific service and trade-off occurring – their privacy versus the benefits of receiving service.”

IoT is theoretically perfect in an airport. For passengers – who encounter unpredictability in the form of queues at security, delays and cancellations – things like regular updates can make a huge difference.

For airport managers, the ability to monitor the condition of assets remotely allows far better asset allocation and reduced costs. While there are bumps in the road, the direction of travel seems clearly to be one-way.