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The day after Edmund Hillary (not yet knighted) and Tenzing Norgay were the first to summit Mount Everest in 1953, the morning’s headline read, ‘Hillary on Everest’, writes Sam Kamel.

Despite Norgay’s critical role as the expedition’s lead sherpa, the British press had positioned him as ‘second-fiddle’ to Hilary.

This subsequently stirred some debate and nationalism around who really was the first human to stand atop the world’s highest peak.

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Fast-forward 63 years to today’s era of digital transformation and you’ll see that a similar story line has emerged when it comes to the utilisation of ‘smart’ technology.

In most instances, you’ll read where specific cities or municipalities are the ones lauded for their efforts in using smart infrastructure to solve problems from air quality and temperature monitoring, to everyday traffic. But this is where history needs to be corrected.

The epicentre of smart technology doesn’t quite originate at the city level – but at the airport. Yes, your local airport.

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Smart airports have always been the first to embrace technologies necessary for operating efficiently, meeting passenger requirements and providing for traveller safety.

Many airports pioneered the adoption of free WI-FI networks or the use of Bluetooth, NFC, LiDAR and the Internet of things (IoT) for the safety and benefit of their travelling customers.

While the larger ‘smart city’ initiative has recently captured our attention, any real, broad-based change has been relatively slow to develop.

But that has not been the case at airports, particularly in 2018 – which saw dozens of US airports applying innovative traveller-assist technologies making them the real pioneers in this exciting smart world.

As an example, Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) and the Indianapolis International Airport (IND) have both installed a smart technology that uses LiDAR sensors (pulsed laser light beams) to capture insights into how travellers move through their terminals.

Using insights generated by these innovative solutions, these airports are now able to assess TSA checkpoint queuing in real time and intelligently adjust to or plan for changes to pedestrian traffic flows that improve the passenger journey and minimise ‘time-to-gate’.

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This is just one of several examples of how digital transformation is making a measureable impact on the airport experience. Yet, despite their success and growing momentum for using smart technology, airports have been cast as Tenzing Norgay, the fast-follower to smart cities.

Well, here’s a different, more accurate perspective on the evolution of smart cities: Smart airports have been and will increasingly be the pioneers and innovators in this exciting new world.

Smart cities have much to learn by the practical solutions being introduced at airports, from biometrics to smart passenger flow management. Airports provide a living, critical and vibrant caldron for innovation and learning about what really works and can be extended to the broader city environment.

Airports are the blueprint that cities and municipalities can and should be following more closely. They are the nucleus, not the microcosm. And like Tenzing Norgay, they are doing much of today’s heavy lifting; adding more smarts to so many areas of their operations.


Illustrating this point is Honeywell’s Smart Building Score, the first-of-its-kind global index designed for the comprehensive assessment of any building.

It’s Middle East survey showed that airports are leading the way for smart buildings in the region compared with other surveyed industries (hotels, hospitals, office and residential buildings, education and retail facilities).

Airports scored the highest across all verticals, leading in all categories that are considered to make a building smart – green, safe and productive – scoring an average of 80 out of a possible 100.

According to the report, the Smart Airports market is expected to grow to $25.9 billion globally by 2025.

MarketWatch.com notes that a “surge in air-traffic and passengers opting for air travel, increasing IT investments in airport infrastructure, increasing adoption of internet of things (IoT), and rising demand for real-time information are major factors driving growth for this market globally.

“In addition, new functions such as crowd management, digital navigation, smartphone integration, energy management, optimum utilization of capacity and resources, better travel experience are expected to further fuel the rapid climb of the smart airports market.”

Yes, this is just the beginning for smart technology and its many applications. Lux Research, an innovation research and advisory firm, has issued a report that sugests the world will deploy one trillion sensors by 2020. That’s a lot of data capture.

But if you really want to be at the forefront of the smart technology buzz, look no further than a major airport near you, it’s probably a lot smarter than you think.• Sam Kamel is the CEO of iinside. He has experience as an entrepreneur, Fortune 100 executive, team builder, change agent, innovator, strategist and successful dealmaker. 


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