Advanced connectivity at airports: ready for take-off?

I recently spoke in Amsterdam at the airport industry’s largest event of the year – Passenger Terminal Expo & Conference.  This was yet another reminder of the diverse potential applications and operational benefits available to industrial users investing in the right type of wireless infrastructure.

Major international airports are highly complex ecosystems with multiple stakeholders performing a large number of processes, many of them in the crucial areas of aircraft, passenger, baggage and cargo handling. The role of airport operators is to orchestrate, synchronise, optimise and facilitate the efficient and effective execution of these processes.

5G, and, further down the line, 6G technologies can help airports to do this. To explain how I spoke alongside Nikos Papagiannopoulos Senior Project Manager at Athens International Airport about the work that we have been doing together through the European Commission 5G-TOURS and now TrialsNet projects.

5G-TOURS aimed to demonstrate the ability of 5G to support multiple vertical use cases concurrently on the same infrastructure. The 5G-TOURS vision is to improve life in the city for citizens and tourists, making cities more attractive to visit, more efficient in terms of mobility and safer for everybody.

How do airports fit into this vision? Well, the Athens use cases in 5G-TOURS focused on areas you might expect, like smart airport parking management, video-enhanced ground-based moving vehicles, and emergency airport evacuation. However, they also included a 5G-supported excursion on an augmented reality (AR)/virtual reality (VR)-enhanced bus, a reminder of the way wireless can enable new and exciting use cases.

But things move fast in the world of wireless. Since 5G-TOURS, another EU initiative, TrialsNet, has been introduced to deploy full, large-scale trials to implement a heterogenous and comprehensive set of innovative 6G applications. These will be based on various technologies such as cobots, the metaverse, massive twinning and the Internet of Senses. Again, airports will be one of the domains TrialsNet covers.

You’d be right to say that 6G is still years away and admittedly Trialsnet is one of Real Wireless’s more future-looking projects. However, helping bridge the gap between the user requirements of verticals, like airports, and the technology potential being offered by wireless vendors and service providers is important if the standards for 6G are to start on the right footing.  Future scoping projects like this also keep Real Wireless well-placed to advise our clients, with more immediate rollout requirements, on what might be coming down the track and ensure that the right architectures are deployed now to support future upgrades.

A key and quite a unique component of Nikos and my presentation in Amsterdam was a cost-benefit analysis of some of the 5G-TOURS use cases.  Many in the wireless industry will speak about the qualitative benefits of improved connectivity for industrial users. But it is very rare that anyone actually quantifies these.  At Real Wireless we have developed a framework for quantifying such benefits and applied this to data gathered from Athens Airport about their current operations and the likely impact of some of the 5G-TOURS applications. This showed that the monetisable benefit of use cases enabled by enhanced connectivity can be significant – growing to up to €5 million per year per use case for the 5G-TOURS examples in the setting of Athens that we shared. Alongside this, the Real Wireless team also used our network dimensioning and cost models to show the CAPEX and OPEX investment required over the network lifetime to put these benefits into perspective.

While technology was only one of the many tracks being covered across the three days of PTE, I was struck by how reliable, real-time data is central to the smooth and efficient operation of airports and how crucial investment in the right connectivity infrastructure to help gather that data is. But it was also clear that every airport is unique and what works for one will not work for all. Perhaps that’s why airports are increasingly taking the time to engage with independent advisors like Real Wireless to help capture the benefits and costs of the connectivity options on offer and understand the right connectivity strategy for them.