Navigating the airport of the future

Navigating the airport of the future

João Fernandes, Founder and CEO of BuzzStreet, looks at the challenges and opportunities for companies when it comes to helping passengers navigate the airport.

Navigating the airport of the future

Outdoor navigation technology matured years ago and now we all walk around with a detailed map of the world in our pockets. But what happens when you enter a building like an airport? The navigation drops out. That’s because map technology is enabled via GPS – satellite technology. And while that sounds cool and techie, in reality satellites are rubbish at picking up phone frequencies from within buildings.

This can be a big issue in complex indoor environments, such as airports. Passengers arrive with little-to-no idea how to navigate to their check-in desk let alone their departure gate, wandering aimlessly around looking for directions. Not only can this cause long queues at security, it can also mean missed departures and angry customers.

The rise of indoor navigation

Fortunately, solutions to this particular problem have already been developed. Most use Bluetooth beacons positioned around a building’s interior to ping a user’s mobile device, allowing an app to pinpoint the user’s location to within a few feet. Of course, there are more sensitive solutions which allow for centimetre-accurate positioning, but that’s usually overkill for something the size of a person.

These beacons are steadily becoming cheaper and more reliable, making them a cost-effective solution for most large and complex indoor environments, such airports. Every environment has its own unique technical challenges to be ironed out, however, meaning indoor navigation requires an expert consultancy rather than a DIY approach.

A number of pilot projects are ongoing with airports, hospitals, and stadiums to iron out these kinks, while Google offers DIY indoor mapping without navigation features.

In the very near future, we will see the combination of these technologies, providing a quick and simple solution for buildings of any size. At this point, we will quickly reach a critical mass of businesses providing indoor navigation and the whole world will be navigable – indoors and out.

The evolution of indoor experiences 

Indoor navigation isn’t just about getting people from A to B, however – it’s also about the journey.

Indoor environments – particularly commercial spaces like departure lounges – could be made so much more interesting and engaging. Most airports already offer free WiFi and digital games to keep kids entertained while they wait. By developing these into immersive experiences, airports have the opportunity to create a fun space where people enjoy waiting.

Imagine going into an airport and seeing marine animals swimming through the air, with games and news appearing on virtual screens around you. As you approach your favourite fragrance counter you can already see whether they have the perfume you wanted before receiving a special discount code. As you step inside, the lighting changes and your favourite band plays softly in the corner.

Trials are already happening with augmented reality (AR) ideas such as these to offer travellers and shoppers a rich, immersive environment to explore.

When hands-free, wearable devices become the mainstream, this futuristic vision will become a reality. Until then, we will still need to use our smartphones and tablets as a window to this world.

The dawn of deep data

Data has become a catch-word over the last few years. It’s BIG, it drives things, and everyone wants a piece of it. It’s been accused of swinging elections and found to help cure cancer. It’s the new oil.

Anonymous navigation data also holds a great power: the ability to transform the world.

Sound a bit grandiose? It really isn’t. For thousands of years we’ve been improving our transport systems, our public services, healthcare, and everything else, through a combination of guesswork and the scientific method. Results are slow to come and never seem to capture the whole picture.

With over 3.6 billion air passengers every year (according to IATA) the world’s airports can’t wait for the results of a five-year trial before making important changes. The world is too complex and fast-moving for that traditional approach. Gathering data in real-time allows us to put our theories to the test, develop new models, and make useful changes quickly and accurately.

How do people move around your airport? What route do they take to get there? Where does your departure lounge get the highest footfall? When and where are people most likely to buy food?

Data can help answer all of these questions and many more. Airports can optimise their environments to improve the user experience, save money, and improve security.

There are almost infinite ways in which the data gathered by navigation software could be used to improve our lives. The only limit is our imagination.

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