Accelerating to Airport 4.0

15 December 2022

Airport 4.0 enables airports to embrace paperless operations, enhance operational and situational awareness, as well as reduce costs so they can become more competitive, outlines Mohamed Amin, digital transformation, Nokia MEA

The adoption of Industry 4.0 digital technologies, such as IoT, AI, machine learning and data analytics are expected to revolutionize the operations of airports, accelerating automation, reducing costs, and monetizing connectivity — all with the goal of improving the passenger experience and overall airport operational efficiency. Leading African airports are increasingly being supported by service providers to digitize their operations and improve their passengers’ experience with a complete set of innovative technology solutions that will help African airports to transform to Airport 4.0.

The biggest challenge is the fast adoption of new technology solutions while focusing on the day-to-day operations. Airports CEOs and CIOs know that they must transform the way they used to operate airports. Going digital and paperless in Airfield & MRO operations is a must and this is becoming more obvious in the wake of the pandemic, which resulted in increasing pressure on airport operations to cater for the growing number of passengers and increased airline traffic.

Bleeding edge technologies

The airport is the main smart city gateway, and the newly developed smart city’s target is to attract and accommodate more visitors per year. That’s why the first visitor experience on arrival at the smart city airport is key for the overall experience. Moreover, the airport is considered a small multinational smart city within itself with all its own services along with those from companies operating within the airport.

We cannot claim that airports are becoming testbeds for new technologies since they are highly regulated areas with intense security measures and critical operations. However, some leading European airports like Brussels Airport have been at the forefront of implementing new technologies like 5G-ready private wireless network. These new technologies have enabled them to accelerate digital innovation, facilitate the integration of future technologies to optimize the airport’s overall operations, and increase the operational efficiency and reliability of airport systems by introducing technologies like IoT (Internet of Things), automated vehicles, mobile safety systems or track-and-trace technology.

Public vs private networks

Airports must provide broadband connectivity everywhere for wireless communications to function properly. The challenge in Africa is in encouraging telecom operators and regulatory authorities to provide more wireless spectrum to cater the broadband demand from passengers and for airport operations. This is in addition to allowing airports to use 4G/5G private wireless technologies for their operations.

The shared WiFi/public wireless networks in use today for passengers are susceptible to traffic congestion, cybersecurity threats and poor signal strength (resulting in unpredictable performance). The WiFi and public wireless networks are unable to prioritize bandwidth for critical applications. Moreover, WiFi does not support proper QoS (Quality of Service) management and public networks are engineered to meet non-critical customer needs. That’s why they might be sufficient for passenger use but not for critical airport operations, which need private dedicated wireless networks.

Airport automation requirements are reliable, low latency, secure and scalable wireless infrastructure. This is especially true in the dense use case environment like the stand. Wireless connectivity should be guaranteed in this environment, including coverage, capacity and QoS, and to enable use cases such as automated gate bridge, turnaround optimization analytics and autonomous vehicles. These requirements can be addressed through dedicated private 4G/5G wireless networks for airport operations while keeping WiFi & public cellular for passengers and retail use.

The foundation of Airport 4.0

Private wireless networks create the foundation for Airport 4.0.

Indeed, one of the key pillars in an airport’s digital strategy is pervasive, reliable, and secure wireless communications able to support a diverse set of use cases and applications. Currently airports typically employ publicly accessible WiFi, which is shared by passengers and operations staff. They also have a choice of several locally available mobile operator services. Because neither of these wireless services is up to the task of supporting the digital transformation of airport operations, airports need to consider a separate, purpose-built private wireless network to support their digital operations and mission-critical communications.

Once this private wireless foundation is there, it will allow the usage of new technologies for Airport 4.0 such as IoT, AI, machine learning and data analytics, that hold great promise for accelerating digitalization, while lowering operating costs, and monetizing the services that airports can offer to partners and tenants.

Of course, if a private network is taken down, contingency plans must be in place to support mission critical operations. Robust equipment and network architecture that are resilient by design must be implemented. Moreover, potential network failover scenarios must be tested before accepting it to be operational.