Reimagining Airport Safety With Emerging Technologies

Image credit: iStockphoto/Kandl

Technology is a double-edged sword. The same transportation technologies that improved travel efficiency, and brought the world closer, have ironically facilitated the record-breaking spread of COVID-19. In a way, driven people apart.

In this modern-day, it is easy for a person to traverse multiple continents within 24 hours, mixing with thousands of passengers along the way, in airports, at stations, and during journeys. In hindsight, it is evident that disease prevention and pandemic management technologies were not developed considering the potential impacts that enclosed, heavily populated, and constrained transportation vehicles might have on disease communication. 

We are, in fact, still figuring this out. Traditionally, health science advocates and policymakers have rarely had a voice in the mass transportation field. Hence, it is difficult to address this as quickly as we wish we could.

The call to take a holistic view of transportation systems worldwide and better account for traveler health has never been so urgent. Airports are the critical components of long-haul transportation systems and global connectivity; an enclosed space with high contact rates and innumerable hand-touch surfaces, where strangers from the world cross paths and transmit viruses novel or not, is a severe threat. Airports and planes have far too many spots that can be classified ‘high-transmission’ by their sheer nature.

Due to the pandemic, air travel, while still risky, is necessary, with international travel essential to help global businesses survive. Recognizing this need, the aviation industry worldwide has had to rise to the occasion to win back travelers’ trust with safeguards that can be considered the future.

In our view, AI, IoT, and robotics, woven together by Mobile Apps, will help reshape airports for better public health and improve security, passenger experience, and reduce the overall time from entry to boarding. In the below section, we talk about how passengers will be completing their entire journey virtually touch-free, from the time of entering the airport all the way through to claiming baggage at their destination.

Infographics by Vinod Bijlani, courtesy of

Touch-less fever detection and mask detection technology will become key safety measures at all entry points at the train stations. Combining thermal imaging with video analytics and AI techniques provide a robust system to identify individuals, their body temperature, and whether they are wearing masks. Skin temperature, as measured by thermal cameras, is not always an accurate indicator of body temperature.

For example, passengers’ skin temperature alighting from air-conditioned shuttles or taxis is lower than their actual body temperature. Immediate temperature screening would result in inaccurate readings that may fail to identify a fever. To enhance fever detection, facial and skin temperature data are sent to AI models that track temperature information, and any anomaly with historical data is flagged.

The majority of airports worldwide have deployed thermal scanners that could help them identify passengers who may have COVID-19 by detecting elevated temperatures. While thermal scanners may not be the ultimate defense, the screening is an essential step toward safety. Researchers are working on a breathalyzer test which can detect COVID-19 and other viruses. This has the potential of becoming a game-changer. Breathonix Pte Ltd, a spin-off company from Singapore NUS, has developed an easy-to-use breath test to detect COVID-19 within a minute.

Speech recognition is another AI technology that can be extremely effective in infection control and improving efficiency. The boarding pass collection process could be transformed via a Speech-based Kiosk. Passengers would talk to the kiosk and communicate their flight details. The Kiosk in the background would utilize face recognition to validate the passenger details with their passport information. The kiosk functions to create and dispense boarding passes embedded with RFID chips. RFI- based boarding passes would support tracking the passenger journey through the airport and managing the social distancing aspects.

The touch-based kiosks have been deployed by major airlines, which can be transformed into newer Speech-based kiosks. These kiosks will have been designed not just for boarding passes but also to handle other functions like PPE kits, which might become part of the travel mandate. Dubai Airport has PPE vending machines installed for its international passengers.

With enough luggage to warrant the use of trolleys, passengers would think twice before laying their hands on the metal trolley handles, classified as high touch surfaces potentially harboring viruses. Similar to those at the Kempegowda International Airport at Bengaluru, India, UV-treated trolleys ensure complete disinfection. While security trays are sanitized after every use, all outbound passenger baggage is disinfected before being loaded into the aircraft to stop potential pathogens from being transported overseas. Airports considering silver nano-coating technology for high-use surfaces are on the right track toward long-term disinfection solutions.   

Almost every aspect of airport logistics needs to go digital, owing to the COVID-19 new normal. Automated Baggage check-in is one such aspect that can improve airport logistics and passenger experience. This transformation can be implemented using the highly accurate location tracking tag based on Ultra-wideband (UWB) technology and face recognition. Passengers at self-service check-in kiosks will scan their boarding passes, with the touchless screen displaying journey details just as their baggage is weighed and UWB tags produced.

This process will associate the baggage tag with the boarding pass and facial information of the passenger. Delta Air Lines chose Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to debut its self-service check-in kiosks, to support self-service, and speed up passenger processing, even verifying customer identity by matching faces to passport photos.

As passengers move through the security kiosk, the millimeter-wave scanner uses millimeter-wave advanced imaging technology and walk-through metal detectors to screen passengers. Such scanners safely and swiftly scan for possible threat without any physical contact before passengers proceed to immigration. The contactless immigration process in Singapore’s Changi Airport, has been tested for feasibility, efficiency, and accuracy even during high-travel seasons. This means no more handing over documents ― fully automated systems for a hands-free experience.

With time to spare before boarding, passengers are notified of stores matching their shopping interests and guided by the airport app to their favorite brands, with notifications on discounts and offers. The Hamad International Airport in Doha takes passengers on a virtual street-view tour of the airport via the airport app and alerts them when the gate is open for boarding.  Passengers are reassured with the efficient queue management and customer flow throughout the airport.

It is a matter of time before humanoid robots are used for social distance violations, including passengers without masks. SoftBank Robotics’ six-year-old Pepper is already on a new assignment to connect public health with technology. While passengers can use the finding-the-way feature available in the airport app to head to the gate for boarding, the aircraft cabin is sanitized by cleaning bots using antimicrobial sprays that inhibit the growth of microbes. Airlines have started using the High-Efficiency Particulate Air filters to purify cabin air continuously and rid it of 99.9% of 0.3-micron particles for a clean in-flight experience.

We believe that airports of the future undergoing a transformation for infection containment should think through this from a customer experience perspective and how the infection containment technologies can work towards total passenger management, enable personalization and empower operational efficiency for years to come. The goal of airports is to provide passengers an all-encompassing safe and user-friendly experience, with touchless and frictionless travel and higher passenger capacity reducing carbon emissions. With this goal in mind, they should utilize AI and IoT technologies to make the journey even more enjoyable, pain-free, and, more importantly, seamless and sustainable.

The aviation industry has been among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 outbreak. And though touchless travel has been around for a while, pandemic-specifics still need maturing. Getting old airport systems under the IoT umbrella can take time, just as any new technology can be complex to introduce. Clearly, more modern and more intuitive solutions are needed.

With AI helping almost every aspect of air travel, face recognition and biometrics will be the passports of the future. Human errors would decrease significantly, and security breaches would be reduced. It could be a safety fuse that we are looking for to contain pandemics.

Vinod Bijlani leads the AI and IoT Practice for HPE. He is primarily a Technologist who is passionate about creating, finding Machine learning and AI solutions that will move humanity and the environment forward. He has over 22 years of solutioning experience and is a distinguished inventor with 25 patents in AI and ML technologies. He envisions a radically safer, healthier, and a more sustainable planet with the democratization of AI, Industry 5.0, and 5G technologies.

Pam Nesbitt is Global Healthcare Lead for Commercial Software Engineering at Microsoft. She and her team catalyze digital transformation in the Healthcare space, allowing clients to do more with less. Ms. Nesbitt has filed over 250 patent applications with the USPTO, is a Master Inventor, and was IP lead for her division. She has received several internal and external awards for her work, has presented at dozens of international conferences, and has published in several peer-reviewed journals. She holds a B.S. in Neurobiology from Cornell University and an M.S. in Computer Science from Cleveland State University.

A shorter version of this article was published here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CDOTrends. Image credit: iStockphoto/Kandl