Why airports are slow to install beacons
During a recent trip to Miami International Airport, I had the chance to try out the facility’s app, which is driven by beacons, or short-range, location-detection devices.
Miami International is sprawling, and I needed to navigate from the end of Concourse D in the North Terminal to Concourse F in the Central Terminal. The app used the beacons to power a map that gave real-time walking directions, along with estimated travel times. It allowed me to find locations of Café Versailles, where I could get my Cuban coffee fix.
The airport has installed 241 beacons from technology provider SITA that help travelers and visitors navigate the 7.5 million-square-foot-facility. It installed beacons in spots including entrances, check-in desks, airline gates, baggage claim, and valet parking zones.
Beacons have big potential. They broadcast in different zones that can be used by airport tenants, including airlines and retailers, to share alerts and track passengers and staff.
Yet Miami’s deployment of beacon technology is rare in the industry, according to Proxbook, which tracks deployments.
To learn why airports have been slow to adopt the technology, I spoke first with Robert Zippel, who is the global technology lead for Accenture Travel Industry and who has studied beacon deployments at airports.
Most airports are still working out which technology to use when it concerns location-based technology, said Zippel.
“As airports still search for use cases with value, and there is no generally accepted platform for this technology and its applications, the adoption is consequently slow.”
“In non-technology terms, an iBeacon is like a lighthouse. It is one-way communication, and the intelligence is in the app, not the iBeacon transmitter. But the technologies are suitable for different-use cases. The use cases that offer value will decide the technology.”
There are currently three standards of beacons: iBeacon, Eddystone, and AltBeacon, said Zippel. “For each of these three standards, there are many beacon manufacturers that either support all or some of the standards. It’s also worth noting that they all run on the same BT LE technology, so the radio frequency (RF) capabilities of all are exactly the same,” he said.
Until recently, only Apple’s iBeacons existed, and they had several limitations, said Zippel. “First they only transmit a UUID (universally uniquely identifiable ID). Second, they could only be detected by iPhones, ruling out a large part of the mobile handset market,” he said.
“In July 2015, Google released the specification of Eddystone, which provides more frame types (UUID, URL and telemetry) as well as being supported by any platform that recognizes that type.”
There have been several other factors limiting the adoption of beacons, said Zippel. Beacon costs are now under $10 per unit and are therefore more affordable at scale.
“But installation, service, and maintenance costs are still high, at around $300 per beacon, according to [research by] Forrester, which is double the management cost of a wifi hotspot today, due to the immaturity of the installation and management toolset for beacons,” said Zippel.
The industry is still learning about the viable use cases that can be deployed using beacons, said Zippel. “Initially, only wayfinding or targeted advertising were considered, but there are far more complex use cases around people or asset tracking now realizable using new beacon technology,” he said. “And as beacons have reduced in size from a tennis ball to a postage stamp, this has opened up many new-use cases, including instrumentation of people as well as the typical case of infrastructure.”
As airport use cases become better understood and defined, the battle will intensify between the different standards, he added.
As if that doesn’t offer enough complexity, there is more. Zippel outlined current beacon technology including:
● BTLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) beacons, typically used at fixed locations for functions like wayfinding and personalized in-shop retail
● Mobile proximity-based beacons that track items, targeted at consumer market
● Indoor wayfinding using wifi in buildings where there is no GPS signal
● The relative new technology of creating a electromagnetic fingerprint of a building (each building has a unique fingerprint) and using the embedded electronic compass from the smartphone to do positioning without a beacon
● LoRaWan sensors in a LoRa Network that measure things like temperature, humidity, position, water-detection and air quality.
Airports will need to provide beacon infrastructure that doesn’t interfere with other wireless infrastructure, and the airport and its shops would need to adopt standardized infrastructure and agree on it, which is not likely, Zippel observed. “It is also not likely that airports will allow mixed proprietary infrastructure on their premises. The discussion becomes then who ‘owns’ the customer – is it the airline or airport?”
Perhaps most importantly, there’s the business model question. Is it a service for airlines and traveler or is it a new revenue stream? asked Zippel.
“The real value is in the combination. However, that means sharing data and not battling over the ownership of the customer. To overcome all this, there would have to be a clear business case for all parties — airport, businesses located at the airport, and airport users.”
Beacons are pretty simple in terms of the data they generate, said Zippel.
“How you interpret that data is where this potentially gets complicated. Assuming the beacon is attached to a person, that information can now be used to determine that person’s location and runs into data privacy issues.
Separately, beacons can also trigger actions on smartphones. at which point it’s the responsibility of the handset manufacturer or OS provider to ensure the user is aware of what happens to the information determined.”
The owners of the applications sensing the beacons control the data, not the owners of the beacons, although they could be the same entity, said Zippel. “The owners of the applications will need to agree with the users about what data is collected and used in which way,” he said. “Users will generally accept that if there is enough value provided by the application.
Ron Reed is the director of product management, digital mobile services and business intelligence at SITA, which created the beacons used at Miami International. He told Tnooz: “SITA has worked with industry partners to develop use cases.”
“In Miami, we integrated the technology into the airport’s infrastructure to provide passengers with wayfinding navigation solutions, such as near-me-now features that help passengers navigate the airport. In the future, we’ll offer opt-in solutions for passengers that will offer them discounts and offers from airport retailers and restaurants.”
The industry tends to want to do proof-of-concept and thorough evaluation before rolling out any new technology, said Reed. Hence, the delay.
Betros Wakim, CEO of airport technology provider AirIT, said his company has been working with three airports on developing their strategies and supplementing those strategies with strong business cases. “We have placed a special emphasis on the passenger experience and the protection of their personal data,” he said.
The primary value of beacons, he said, is their ability to deliver some degree of positioning and situational awareness. Wakim added:
“Based on this fact, information can be tailored and delivered specifically to a passenger to fulfill a specific desire or need. Conversely, airport tenants like airlines can likewise use the passenger positioning data to know proactively where passengers are in the process of completing their journey to a departing aircraft, lounges and security checkpoints.”
Data collection continues to be a potential pain point in all facets of emerging technology and beacons are no different, Wakim noted.
“Data collection is at the very heart of the ability to deliver these services. We think the real issue is what happens to the data after it is used. Is it stored indefinitely and used to track behavior, or is it deleted? While it’s clear that there is tremendous value in the data, … it’s imperative to define the uses and archival plans for the data and gain consent during the app registration process.
The barrier to adoption is centered around three main issues, said Wakim. “The first one is data privacy and security, the second is the monetization model, and the third is the technology evolution,” he said. “It’s also important to note that there are newer emerging technologies that can offer similar functionality to beacons without the requirement to install any hardware.”
“Obviously, it’s clear that positioning technology will continue to evolve and play a more important role over the next five years, but it would be difficult to believe that it will strictly be based on beacon technology.”
That said, beacons are here to stay in some role in the near future. SITA’s Reed argued: “This technology is going to be part of our lifestyle in airports, shopping malls, grocery stores and everywhere we go,” he predicted. “We’ll soon begin to see it integrated with other sensor technology so it can be used for multiple purposes.”
Airports and airlines should continue to explore this technology and other IoT solutions in order to improve the passenger experience, find new ways to save on resources and advance the industry as a whole, Reed advised.
Zippel noted that trust is critical.
“Without trust, digital businesses cannot use and share the data that underpins their operations. To gain the trust of individuals, ecosystems, and regulators in the digital economy, businesses must possess strong security and ethics at each stage of the customer journey. And new products and services must be ethical- and secure-by-design.”
Regulation is another issue, said Zippel.
“Airlines and airports require special trust and can’t roll anything out that doesn’t fulfill those requirements. In countries with strict data privacy laws and civil law, like Germany, this is much more problematic than in the US. There won’t be uniform standard solutions because of this.”
Lufthansa’s case study
Despite all the obstacles, airports and airlines that are determined to reap the benefits of location-aware technologies can take actions now.
Exhibit A: Lufthansa is testing iBeacons at its Munich hub as a way to improve the passenger experience. Under the test, travelers who have the airline’s app on their smartphones will receive an offer to use its Business Lounge for Euro 25 if they are in the area.
Travelers can also get a personalized offer to buy an upgrade to business class for short and medium-haul flights; it is being tested on long-haul flights from Munich to Los Angeles and Seoul, and from Frankfurt to Delhi, Shanghai, and Toronto.
Finally, travelers can use their electronic baggage receipt in their Lufthansa app to track their baggage and know which carousel they can find it on. This service is currently available at the airports in Frankfurt, Munich, Stuttgart, and Milan.
The German carrier chose to test the beacons at Munich Airport because of its strong and reliable partnership with the facility’s operator, said spokeswoman Christina Semmel. “The iBeacon technology is directly connected to the airport’s infrastructure, which made the integration quite dynamic and straightforward.”
Lufthansa continuously tries to improve customers’ experience with its products, said Semmel. “With the iBeacon technology, we have two connected services that benefit our customers when arriving at the airport,” she said.
Perhaps the Munich efforts, like the ones in Miami, will inspire others in the travel industry to experiment with location-aware technology, too.
Benét J. Wilson is a guest editorial contributor. She runs Aviation Queen, an aviation/travel writing freelance business. A veteran journalist based in Baltimore, Md., Wilson writes on topics including commercial aviation, aircraft manufacturing, airports, security, and the airline passenger experience.