Most of the aviation industry pundits are predicting a U-shaped rebound of the industry, which means a prolonged, stretched, slow recovery. As of today, more than 50 percent of commercial aircraft are parked, the number of people flying in the U. S. is down by 85 percent compared to last year this time and IATA forecasts a 70 percent year-over-year fall in RPK (Revenue Passenger Kilometer) by end of this quarter. By end of this year, in my view, we will start to see a glimpse of recovery in the commercial aviation industry, where people will gain a bit of confidence to go back to airports, taking planes for domestic and international travels. The role of 21st Century Technologies (like IoT, AI, ML) and biometrics, in gaining passenger confidence, improving operational efficiencies (of airports, airlines, aerospace and defense, equipment manufacturers, supply chain) and in the overall recovery of the commercial aviation industry will be more crucial than ever before.
For the past decade, 21st century technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML) have dominated conversations in the tech world. A report by Market Research Future published that the value of the Global Aviation IoT market could increase by reaching $25B by 2023. Such growth is expected to rise at a healthy pace by recording a massive CAGR of 16 percent from 2018 to 2023. The question that comes to mind is, “Will this trend going to change in the post-COVID world?” In my view, the answer is “no,” and the adoption of new technology in the aviation industry will accelerate in the post-COVID world. Historically, the aviation industry has been a laggard industry, when it comes to new technology adoption.
In the pre-COVID world, smart airports and manufacturers of smart planes were looking forward to deploying the latest IoT technology to deliver delightful passenger experiences, and make up losses in the business by bringing in operational efficiencies, lowering AOG (Aircraft on Ground) time, generating ancillary revenues and safety. However, in the post-COVID world, the most important thing is to increase passenger confidence, bring people back to the airports, planes, and have them fly safely from point A to point B. All other factors like passenger experience, ancillary revenue, operational efficiencies will revolve around passenger safety and hygiene.
In the post-COVID world, I believe, IoT solutions around the following four key elements would be key to the success of an Airport, an Airliner, and an A&D Equipment Manufacturer. These four things are, 1. Connected User; 2. Connected Products; 3. Connected Infrastructure and 4. Connected Operations.
An IoT platform and data analytics solutions that provides a foundation to build quick solutions for around these areas, based on their specific use case will be crucial.
1. Connected User: This entails aligning IOT solutions like App-based PAX tracking, Proximity Alert, Location Services, Passenger Biometric and Health vitals. This also includes cabin operational insight on seat occupancy metrics, passenger comfort metrics (based on posture recognition, and derive passenger comfort score) with real-time flow of user information, so that companies can offer new type of services based on innovative commercial models. HCL’s Biometric ID Management enables use of Touchless Biometric ID to verify identity and manage workflows in an airport, operations center, etc.
2. Connected Products: These include IoT-ized products like airport apps, staff devices and integration, gate access and facility access with features for monitoring. These features for monitoring go beyond just the primary functions, by providing access to real-time, accurate, ambient data and data about products’ performance. In addition to this, Inflight Entertainment (IFE) will change significantly by efficient delivery of content to PAX devices and integrating PAX handheld devices with the seatback IFE display (casting). Gesture-based, touchless IFE control would be of great value to keep passengers safe.
Cognitive Product for Human Experience using IoT: These include products that leverage IoT to transform Human Experience, enhance Situational Awareness, and Safety. A product like HCL’s Cognitive Product Solution enables mood and health detection in near real-time through analysis of facial reactions and human postures. The two top benefits to airlines are:
• Improved Customer Experience: Detailed and customized service offerings and interaction through analysis and detection of customer body posture and facial reactions.
• Health Safety: Enhanced safety regulations can be implemented in near real-time by using analytics in the Airport, inside the cabin and at seats to detect if the PAX is wearing masks, semi-restricted zones, any public areas, error prone work environments like cargo bay etc.
3. Connected Infrastructure – Enabling IOT applications – like connected entry, exit, security points, CUTE, CUSS Equipment and touchless boarding (from curbside to the gate) in the specialized airport and airplane environment, organizations can significantly increase safety of passengers and optimize their cost.
4. Connected Operations – IoT technology-based solution can certainly bring in huge operational efficiencies, enhanced customer or employee experience and improve safety. While these solutions do exist today in the commercial aviation industry, I think these solutions are not implemented in a large part of our commercial aviation industry and there is a lot of headroom available to upgrade existing legacy systems enabling enterprises to smoothen their business operation flow by minimizing wastage, total cost of ownership (TCO) and by running a lean operation. Few IoT applications such as data collection from terminal gates, Integrated supply chain optimization, operational data management and analysis, track and trace solutions should gain significant traction in the coming years.
Indoor Track and Trace Solution – Enabling in-premises location and path detection of assets/ people. There are a wide range of technological options including RFID, Wi-Fi, BLE, UWB, VLC/Li-Fi (among others) depending on specific application of use, including aggregation when tracking inventories at multiple levels of granularity. Few uses cases are tracking of tools inside hangar/MRO facilities, inside the aircraft, tracking of time sensitive materials like life vests, oxygen cylinders inside the cabin, inventory tracking inside the shop floor etc.
Outdoor Track & Trace Solution – Monitoring location, condition, and integrity of an asset outside the four walls. GPS-enabled asset monitoring device that provides asset location and condition information with global cellular connectivity and a long-lasting in-built battery, either at pre-determined time intervals or on-demand. A few use cases are — high valued tools movement outside the hangar, food tracking, baggage tracking, real time inventory tracking across supply chain for system manufacturers etc.
When it comes to machine learning/artificial intelligence in aviation, I would like to highlight the usage of AI/ML in RPA (Robotic Process Automation), which is very helpful to reduce back office operational cost for airlines, and airframe manufacturers by bringing them significant upfront savings. In the post-COVID world, saving cash will be of huge importance. Leveraging RPA/AI/ML to aviation client will be key. In line with the business process evolution and maturity, an automated rule-based, repetitive tasks in finance, accounting, and supply chain functions for aviation manufacturers is needed. For an aviation manufacturer, eliminating data entry in their accounts payable (AP) process by deploying RPA technologies will help. Further, a tool to digitize structured and unstructured data has been developed. HCL has a solution, Exacto, an intelligent character recognition (ICR) tool developed jointly with MIT to detect structured and unstructured data including handwritten images and digitize the data for downstream processing. For a leading Tier I aerospace engine manufacturer, automating the complete transactional procurement process has been accomplished. Processes such as PO placement, shipment tracking, price update in ERP, vendor inquiry, and AP helpdesk processes have been automated by deploying RPA technology.
In the last two decades, the aviation industry has survived two economic catastrophes — the 9/11 attack and the 2008 global financial crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 is the third and biggest economic catastrophe the industry has ever experienced. The recovery is going to be prolonged, but we believe it will be a solid recovery. 21st century technologies and biometrics will be at the forefront of this recovery and in shaping the future of aviation. In my view, this is the tipping point for the aviation industry. It will no longer be the laggard industry when it comes to new technology adaptation and by the end of this decade, we will see a rapid paradigm shift the way aircraft are built, airports are operated and the way we travel.
Sam Swaro is the associate vice president of HCL Technologies, a next-generation global technology company that helps enterprises reimagine their businesses for the digital age and is a member of the board of governors of the Aerospace Industries Association.