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Enhanced wireless networks are key to enabling the digitalisation of airports and taking performance and safety to the next level, writes Nokia’s global aviation practice lead, Richard van Wijk.

Given its reliance on the movement of people, it is little wonder the aviation industry was among those hit hardest by the pandemic. Countries locked down, planes grounded, and airports emptied.

As flying returned, airports imposed stringent restrictions to ensure passenger and staff safety. They focused on health checks, maintaining social distancing, and use of face masks. All of which meant deploying more staff when numbers needed to be kept to a minimum.

Some airports implemented thermal detection and remote surveillance to mitigate risk. But as the pandemic progressed, borders opened and closed in the blink of an eye and governments enforced new regulations almost daily, requiring airports to react ever more quickly.

Airport 4.0 and economic recovery

It’s clear that to comply with changing requirements quickly, airports needed  a flexible and robust digital infrastructure. By becoming digital hubs – and embarking on the transformation to Airport 4.0 – they could  harness the capabilities of connected sensors to benefit from widespread automation at the terminal and airside.

Allowing them to digitalise processes and reduce paper and pencil activities, they could cut costs and realise operational efficiencies and strategic goals.

To facilitate this, airports need to move away from fixed cable networks to leverage more flexibility in asset locations and enable airside wireless services. The reason? Those relying solely on fixed networks cannot react fast enough. Imagine the time (and cost) of connecting new sensors in an airport using ethernet cables.

It also requires moving away from shared public cellular and Wi-Fi networks. These are susceptible to interference at airside, as well as congestion during peak traffic. They simply don’t guarantee the reliability and connectivity required by new digital applications.

Airport 4.0 relies on the implementation of an industrial-grade privately owned wireless network. By adopting their own private wireless network, airports can rapidly and ‘wirelessly’ connect applications, sensors, remote buildings and other assets in a secure way.

During the pandemic, Brussels Airport, for example, swiftly implemented changes by leveraging a resilient private wireless network. It introduced capabilities to show how its adherence to distancing regulations and quickly established an on-site rapid COVID test facility.

Learn to fly through the pandemic and beyond

As they strive to keep passengers moving, some airports and airlines are investigating digital travel passes using a combination of COVID testing, vaccination certificates and e-tickets on passengers’ mobile devices, to move closer to touchless travel and build greater passenger confidence.

Beyond COVID, a robust private LTE or 5G network will give airports greater control to take advantage of new revenue opportunities, such as utilising their network to sell connectivity services to stakeholders. It will allow them to ‘cut the wire’ with fixed networks and introduce applications that further digitalise their operations.

Airport stakeholders will benefit from unprecedented connectivity and real-time operational and situational awareness to improve response times and streamline airside operations such as maintenance and refuelling as well as baggage handling activities.

Once again, Brussels Airport has showcased how private wireless can facilitate new digital capabilities. Recent trials used drones remote controlled over 5G for safety and surveillance activities, delivering high-definition images and mapping wildlife around runways. A drone detection system was also deployed to test unauthorised activity.

While there is no doubt COVID has created challenges for the aviation industry, Airport 4.0 can offer airports a flight path to recovery and effectively reduce operational costs.

As we emerge from the pandemic, the introduction of flexible, resilient private wireless networks will allow airports to automate operations and benefit from new safety capabilities and air travel, as we once knew it, returns.


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  2. Adam Wolfe 23rd September 2023

    amazing! most unique and informative writing


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