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Bits vs. Bricks: The Smart Future of Air Travel in Dubai

As a pilot for small aircrafts I know what it feels like to simply step into a plane and fly to a beautiful location. I used to live in Switzerland and take my plane to spend the day in beautiful places, strolling through europe’s medieval alleys, and embarking on leisurely walks at lakefronts. After that I would hop back into my plane and fly home. That’s pure joy. I’d like to help bring some of that effortless joy into professional aviation. Because let’s face it: today’s air travel sucks. Commercial airports are just a long array of hassles and time-consuming obstacles. By the time you’ve finally reached the aircraft and taken your seat you’re so stressed there’s no way you can enjoy your flight. After reaching your destination the whole ordeal starts anew, and to make matters worse, you realize, your baggage was lost.

Dubai is among the six cities around the world featured in Siemens’ Atlas of Digitalization. Find out more here.

A year ago, I moved to Dubai to take on the position as Head of the Mindsphere Application Center for Aviation  with Siemens. Our objective is to design the future airport, drive the digitalization of airport logistics, and unlock the full potential of air travel with smart data, machine learning and IoT applications. It is quite remarkable, that a company like Siemens would set up its worldwide headquarters for airports in a city like Dubai, quite a far stretch from its operational HQ in Germany. But there are very good reasons for that.

Dubai: a bustling link between continents

Dubai is the host of the Expo2020. A natural link between Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, Dubai already hosts the busiest airport in the world, when it comes to international travel. Almost 90 million travelers per year pass through Dubai International Airport. As the growing financial power in the East will bring forth a huge shift in the Asian market, Dubai’s importance as an aviation hub will even increase. With the extension of Al Maktoum Airport underway the city will become home to the biggest airport ever built with an eventual estimated capacity of up to 250 million passengers per year. 

Dubai International Airport

Al Maktoum: the smartest airport on the planet

Al Maktoum will not only be the biggest airport in size and passenger numbers, it will also be the smartest. With its oil reserves, the original source of its prosperity, eventually running out, the Emirates’ leadership is adamantly advancing the shift to smart technology. With much lesser oil reserves than UAE’s capital Abu Dhabi to begin with, Dubai has already shifted its focus in the early 1990s, and now derives 95% of its GDP from tourism, not oil.

Creating effortless passenger journeys and perfect travel experiences

Are you a frequent traveler? Be it for business or vacation, I’m sure you know the ordeal: queuing up for check-in, then again for the security check, at customs, at the baggage claim, then trying to find your way to public transport, and eventually arriving at your hotel, somewhat frustrated and fully exhausted.

The drive for digitalization and implementation of smart technology really centers around creating the perfect and most effortless travel experience for visitors, inhabitants, and business leaders. The airport is the throbbing heart of these endeavors. In the roughly 100 years since the first commercial flight the number of passengers has risen to 4 billion per year on a global scale. In the next 18 years we expect a doubling of this figure to 8 billion. Looking at these numbers one can imagine how great a pressure to scale their operations airports are facing today.

Implementation of smart technology to scale operations

It takes bits, not bricks, to achieve this scaling, and to keep up and improve the comfort, safety, and time-efficiency of air travel. Siemens has signed an agreement to co-create data driven solutions with Dubai Airports, aimed at collecting relevant data to enhance passenger experience. Siemens’ IoT operating system MindSphere is used to manage and analyze this data.

Challenges of creating a central data hub

How do you bring all the stakeholders together? Airport officials, air carriers, public transport organizations, and government agencies all have to be brought to the table to share and align their data. This is quite a challenge. In addition to the smart data hub project, Siemens has signed a major service and maintenance contract for baggage handling systems. The company also helps Dubai Airports to reduce their energy bill through data analytics and automation systems.

Smart baggage handling

Ever had your luggage lost in a multi-legged international flight? If you’re a frequent flyer like me, chances are, you have. 

To solve the problem with lost baggage, we are developing digital fingerprints based on photographs of luggage. Like this, even bags without any tagging can be attributed to an owner, using artificial intelligence to determine size, color, brand, location and time stamp, and automatically comparing this data to the flight schedule. Eventually, passengers will be able to track their luggage in real-time via their smart phones.

AI-aided air traffic control

Do you know what the deadliest accident in aviation history was caused by? 

– a miscommunication between air traffic control and pilot. 

Today machine learning algorithms are employed to monitor the communication between ATC and pilots. The data gleaned supports faster and better-informed decision making and reduces the risk of human error. Artificial intelligence models already exceed humans in complex tasks as filtering out background noise and handling information from multiple sources simultaneously. 

The sheer speed of technological development

A major challenge on Dubai Airports’ path to full digitalization is the fast rate of smart technology development. I see new use cases emerge almost every day. New smart products are issued at a dazzling rate. This puts an enormous pressure on existing company infrastructures. Technology is simply moving faster than organizations. The airports are already running at their peaks. They are so steeped into putting up with their operational business oftentimes there is little room for prototype testing and implementation of new technology.

It needs strong partners to make an airport smart

It needs strong partners to help airports identify pain points and prioritize implementation projects. The chief challenges for an airport’s digital transformation are

  • finding windows for technological innovation within operational business
  • stakeholders that are not set up to move at fast pace, like government organizations
  • creating a unified stakeholder environment that accommodates all
  • finding business models customized to the needs of high end and low budget carriers alike

The importance of not leaving people behind

It is easy to get smitten with the progress in smart technology and digital innovation. Yet, it is important to take responsibility for this technological evolution and conduct it in an environmentally compliant way, that does not overlook the people. With the shift to smart technology the nature of labor will undergo fundamental changes.

If we do not invest in smart knowledge now, and install digital education programs for our workforce, the smart technology revolution will most likely backfire. We need to make a better effort at explaining this historical opportunity to the people, and engaging them in the digital transition. We have to ask the question what the future will look like for all of us, how we can integrate those who are far from being digital natives, and how we can promote an organic pace of technological innovation that equally serves and benefits all people.

My vision for the future airport

While keeping this potential shortcoming in mind, I believe, we do look upon a bright future of aviation. My vision for the future airport has it turn into a fully digitalized smart hub using biometrics and automated processes for optimization to the full benefit of its users. The question is how can we make commercial air travel enjoyable? And we will find the answers in analyzing smart data and implementing smart technology and IoT applications.

The anthropologist Marc Augé once listed airports among the ‚non-places‘, spaces with no value to human identity, nor value as a meeting point for sharing ideas and social references. This is really on the change as airports are evolving into little smart cities. The future smart airport will be a pleasant place to be, move around, meet up, enjoy shopping, hold meetings, and conduct business. 

Well, at least that’s the vision, and I’m eager to throw in my expertise to help make it happen.

Let me know what you think.

What are your experiences with air travel? Is smart technology really making a change for the better?