Gatwick has been a leading airport innovator for many years and the airport’s ongoing relationship with Plug & Play, a Silicon Valley accelerator, is one way the transport hub stays ahead of the curve and manages to maintain its crown of being the world’s most efficient single runway airport.
Going forward, new technology and innovation will also help the airport to grow by allowing the airport to make better use of its existing main runway and also by helping it to bring its standby runway into regular use.
Plug & Play introduces new tech start-ups and entrepreneurs from around the globe to established businesses, with a view to fast tracking their innovations and driving forward improvements at scale across a particular sector, in this case airports.
Through this relationship, Plug & Play recently hosted an event at Gatwick Airport that brought tech start-ups from the UK, USA, India, Israel, Austria and Denmark together with airports, airlines and universities to help drive airport innovation forward.
Local universities also attended, including the University of Sussex and the University of Chichester, as did business groups including the Chambers of Commerce from both Horley and Crawley.
Sixteen start-up companies from around the world pitched their products to event attendees. Five ‘reverse-pitches’ were also given by airport users – including pilots, airfield staff and others who work at the airport - to highlight challenges that they face so that the start-ups could take these away and work up possible future solutions.
Start-ups present included:
• London and Copenhagen-based platforms that connect travellers with hotels and shops where they can store bags – without searching for a specialist luggage facility.
• Paris-based start-up that helps airlines improve fuel efficiency – saving money and emissions.
• A New York-based firm that uses machine learning predict flight disruption and automatically rebook passengers on alternative flights.
• A London-based start-up that aims to make air travel ‘baggage-less’ by checking-in luggage at home and delivering it to the passenger’s final destination.
Presenting at the event was Abhi Chacko, Head of Innovation at Gatwick Airport, who gave an overview of recent innovations at the airport, including a passenger chatbot and the use of computer vision to measure the amount of hand luggage due to go on an aircraft.
He said: “This event kick-started numerous discussions that may not otherwise have happened and we hope it will supercharge airport innovation at Gatwick and other airports across the UK and further afield.
“By deploying the latest innovations, Gatwick has been able to deliver some best in class passenger services. Technology moves fast however and events like this help Gatwick and VINCI Airports to stay ahead of the curve so we can become early adopters of appropriate advances that will improve the service we offer passengers.”
Machine learning to prioritise flights most at risk of delay
Abhi Chacko discusses some recent innovations at Gatwick:
“We obviously want our flights to depart on time but by conventional methods are only able to predict the departure times accurately in advance about 50% of the time.
“We are however now using machine learning to predict the departure time. The machine considers a range of multiple factors – passenger numbers, bags, destination, airfield condition, flight and service history, and will predict when the flight is going to depart. We are now getting it right around 70% of the time and we use the new technology to prioritise the flights that are at most risk of delay and deploy additional resources to help our airline partners get their aircraft away on time.”
Digital management of the aircraft turn
“One of the most critical, but fragmented processes in the airport is the management of the aircraft turn around. It's currently all done using radio and paper.
“We are building an integrated digital platform called “AirTurn” where all stakeholders - captain, crew, boarding agent, bag handler and turn lead – can collaborate and communicate in real time. The users will mark the start/stop of their tasks on the tool and we get a full history of the turns and can use it to fine tune the process over time.
“We can also now detect turn events automatically using computer vision with cameras pointing down to the stands that can detect the jet bridge connecting, cargo doors opening and power connecting.”
Managing aircraft line maintenance digitally
“Another paper and radio process is aircraft line maintenance, which we are streamlining and creating a digital solution for called ‘LineMate’. This will simplify the interactions among captain, aircraft engineer and the control room, and make it more efficient. Solutions like this would be particularly relevant given the Boeing maintenance hanger which will soon be operational at Gatwick.”
Chatbot and Alexa skill
“We have already enabled flight enquiry on Alexa and we have now introduced a Chatbot for passengers on Facebook Messenger to answer typical questions from passengers on flight times, airport facilities etc. Once this has bedded in we will roll it out on Apple iMessage and Whatsapp.”