By Ville Paetynen, Regional Branch Manager at Siemens, examines how airports are preparing to make travel safer
Airports have been hit hard by the Covid-19 crisis. In early October, Singapore’s Changi Airport – frequently voted the world’s best airport – warned of a daunting period ahead. It suspended operations in two terminals and stopped construction work on a new terminal as passenger numbers dropped to their lowest levels in the airport’s history. Meanwhile, Heathrow’s passenger numbers were down by over 80% during the summer holiday period, while Gatwick is also using only one of its terminals.
Travel restrictions are only partly to blame. There has also been a big drop in passenger confidence, meaning that while it’s again possible to fly to some destinations, many passengers are reluctant to board a plane or even enter an airport. A survey by IATA in June 2020 indicated that travellers had become more cautious about air travel, with many not expecting to set foot on an aircraft for at least six months. However, once the virus retreats, the picture may quite quickly look different: in the same survey, a total of 45% of respondents stated that they were intending to fly within two months from the time the pandemic was contained.
While air travel has been badly affected by the pandemic, the underlying conditions for aviation growth ultimately remain unchanged. So, as public health improves and the global economy recovers, we can expect to see a resurgence of air travel. But, there is no doubt that restarting airports will need a careful balancing act. Airports are renowned for being very crowded places where people gather in large groups. They will have to find ways to build trust and confidence to win over returning passengers. It’s not surprising that many travellers feel apprehensive about air travel given the ease of contagion and potential high levels of impact on health of the virus in both short and, in some cases, long term as well as the risk of fatalities. Giving passengers confidence that travelling through airports and flying is safe is going to be a major key for the recovery of the air travel industry.
It is increasingly clear that in the “new normal”, new ways of operating an airport are required. Given the need for the fastest possible recovery from the effects of pandemic on the industry, operators will need to find strategies that clearly demonstrate to passengers, and staff, that effective safety measures are in place to attract travellers back, always balancing these with their need to control operational costs and optimise profits.
While thermal screening is being trialled at several airports, and has previously been used during the 2003 SARS and the 2009 bird flu epidemics, the technology is not always effective at detecting early signs of infection – and would, for example, miss those passengers who have an asymptomatic case of Covid-19. However, there are several other effective measures that can help reduce Coronavirus transmission, such as facilitating better social distancing and ensuring that mask wearing rules are adhered to.
Since most airports are having to look for ways to reduce costs and work more efficiently, dedicating additional staff to these tasks is not an option. However, automated occupancy monitoring and mask detection applications can be installed on existing smart internet protocol (IP) cameras. And, there are ways of mitigating costs of new equipment, to be a very cost effective and reliable solution not just while navigating the Coronavirus crisis but also beyond.
IP cameras inherently work in real time, sending image data, and receiving control data, via a network for instant processing. Adding intelligent image processing algorithms to existing IP video cameras mean these technologies can provide 24/7 monitoring and automated video analytics. Using artificial intelligence and advanced image analysis techniques, they take the pressure off control room staff by providing live information dashboards and by triggering real-time alerts as and when action needs to be taken to reinforce mask wearing and many aspects of safe distancing.
Keeping a distance
Occupancy monitoring, crowd control and understanding people flow are key in ensuring that passengers can keep a safe distance from other travellers in all areas of the airport. Zones where people typically queue, such as check-in or passport control, can be managed effectively by spreading out the queues and this is already happening in airports. However, there are other spaces that see a lot of footfall such as duty-free shops, other retail outlets, and toilets where the only way of ensuring sufficient distancing is to limit the number of customers inside these areas at any given time.
Data from IP cameras can be used to identify possible hotspots that need attention – both by triggering real-time alerts when too many people congregate in a given area and also by providing historical data that helps airports identify where pinch points or crowding are occurring and enable planning to improve the layout of problem zones.
Already used by some retailers, occupancy monitoring is a tried and tested, highly accurate and cost effective technology. Cameras are typically installed at the entrances and exits of clearly defined areas – such as retail outlets in the departure hall, restaurants, waiting rooms or security areas, where they can accurately count customers in and out. Where needed, these cameras can be combined with heatmapping or with other sensors to ensure there are no ‘blind spots’.
Airports can then set safe maximum occupancy thresholds to enable social distancing within the area, and implement measures such as a traffic light display at the entrance that tells passengers whether they can enter safely or whether they need to wait in the queue first until other travellers have moved on. When maximum occupancy is exceeded, an alarm can be raised for staff to take quick action to disperse people.
Aside from efficiently managing customer numbers in real time, visualising, analysing and comparing the data collected from such solutions over a period of time also helps airports gain a thorough understanding of how various spaces are used, how many concurrent customers use certain areas during peak times, and where necessary, adapt their facilities or optimise layouts to better meet customer demands and safety needs. Being able to model and predict periods of high occupancy also helps with optimising staffing, cleaning and sanitisation schedules.
Intelligent cameras can not only monitor people flow, they can also be used to measure the distances between travellers – for example, in narrow corridors. This helps airports understand and change the way in which people travel through such potential problem areas, and address issues by either limiting occupancy in these spaces or introducing one-way systems.
Detecting mask wearers
Reliable, real-time mask detection is another intelligent algorithm that can sit on top of operating systems for existing IP cameras, to help airports enforce Covid-19 health and safety measures. If the camera detects travellers who are not wearing a mask – or who are wearing it incorrectly, this solution can either send an automated alert to a security guard, or it can trigger an action such as playing a pre-recorded safety announcement or displaying a message to remind the customer to wear a mask. Sophisticated algorithms can already detect masks with high accuracy, even when individuals are wearing hats, glasses or headscarves. They can also simultaneously scan several people at once, and do this more reliably and faster than the human eye.
At the same time, data can be visualised on a clear dashboard that shows important metrics such as the number of passengers without a mask, occupancy information and peak times where spaces tend to be more crowded.
All of this information can – where appropriate – be shared with passengers to demonstrate the level of adherence to virus control rules, and to help ensure they feel they are in a safe environment. Transparent communication will be key in building passenger confidence, perceived safety and comfort. In addition, installing measures such as mask detection and occupancy monitoring will also help protect airport staff and allow the airport to comply with any existing or new Covid regulations.
Investment in the future
Occupancy monitoring and mask detection are both applications that can be installed on top of existing IP camera operating systems to help facilitate the ‘new normal’ in airports without the need of running a separate analytics server. Not all IP cameras are ready for these types of video analytics algorithms though: they need to have enough processing power on board to tackle these additional computing tasks and networks may have to be extended to provide sufficient coverage. Pre-Covid, some airports were already considering upgrading their camera installations to enable more intelligent applications; the need for extra safety and security during the pandemic has now made such upgrades more urgent.
At this time, airports are inevitably conscious of cuts to capital and infrastructure spending. IP camera systems do not have to be an expensive investment, or indeed have any capital investment implications – the applications themselves are cost effective and when it comes to the infrastructure, the best vendors offer rental in a ‘security-as-a-service’ agreement as an option. This allows airports to control costs while significantly increasing passenger confidence. Airlines, too, have an interest in boosting passenger numbers again post lockdown, so there could be scope for cooperation. The important thing to remember is that the focus will eventually shift from how to survive the pandemic to how to move forward as fast and safely as possible, with airports and airlines able to demonstrate the extent of practical measures for passenger safety that have been put in place.
Implementing advanced camera applications is a smart investment that helps airports manage risk in the short term, and brings a clear return on investment in the long term. These video analytics algorithms are sustainable solutions that can be adapted and reused for other AI purposes in the future, collecting valuable data to provide business intelligence on how travellers move through an airport and where they tend to spend the most time.
Post-pandemic, the occupancy monitoring algorithm can continue to provide useful data on footfall, while the mask recognition algorithm could be adapted to enable anonymous customer segmentation by gender or age. Airports can then use these insights to improve the passenger experience, optimise staff levels, boost retail and gastronomy revenue and design more efficient departure and arrival processes.
It remains to be seen what legislation will be put in place to ensure safer travel and encourage initiatives that improve virus control measures. But regardless of rules and regulations, those airports that can make their passengers feel safe and protected will likely be the ones to bounce back fastest. The road to full recovery may be long, but successful airports that make prudent investments during difficult times will emerge from the recession in a stronger position as economies recover.
Ville Paetynen is regional manager at Siemens Smart Infrastructure, focusing on integrated solutions and digital services. He has 15 years of experience within airports, retail and industry. He is passionate about aviation and eager to get back flying again.