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Why We’re Sad the Best Airport in the World Is Getting Even Better –

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Singapore’s Changi airport is the best in the world and an awesome place to spend a long layover. So it’s kind of a bummer that it’s getting a real-time data system that will cut delays by rethinking its operations and streamlining how its moves planes, people, and personnel.

It’s easy to track people and goods as they move around these days, but that power hasn’t really been put to use making airports less horrible. That’s why ST Electronics, a subsidiary of Singapore’s largest technology and defense contractor, ST Engineering, is partnering up with Changi on a solution called Intelligent Airport.

The SimCity-esque system will collect information like precise aircraft arrival times, the location of airport assets and personnel, and crowd movement, and make it available in one place, so everything flows more smoothly and delays can be cut down.

Bigger isn’t enough

Changi Airport, sitting on Singapore’s eastern shore, recently upgraded its air traffic control system. It’s building a third runway and a fifth terminal as part of a major infrastructure upgrade. By the time the expansion is wrapped up, around 2020, the airport should be able to handle 135 million passengers per year, almost double the current rate.

More tarmac isn’t the complete answer to a better airport. In ideal conditions, even the best air traffic controllers can’t coordinate much more than one landing a minute on a runway without compromising safety. Weather, technical delays, routing conflicts, and myriad little things slow the queue down. In 2012, Changi averaged 890 flights per day with two runways. That’s not quite 38 an hour, so there’s room for improvement.

Speeding things up requires better communication on the ground. With a shiny new system, air traffic control can see and direct planes and compute their precise arrival time, more than an hour before they show up. But it barely communicates with airport management, so that valuable information isn’t shared. With Intelligent Airport, ST Engineering wants to put all the available knowledge in a single room. “It’s an airport end-to-end optimization tool, from arrival to departure” says Max Thiam, a VP at ST Electronics and one of the men behind the effort.

Intelligent Airport aims to take airport operations from reacting to what’s going on to predicting it and acting accordingly. Airport resources are tracked, from trucks to personnel (via their smartphones). It’s a system integrator’s dreamscape: each complex function feedback is funneled into actionable information.

Playing SimCity

In person, Intelligent Airport feels like playing SimCity. Multiple screens with lots of different feeds allow the person in charge to monitor—and control—various airport functions in ways video game players would recognize.

The system, announced at the Singapore Airshow last February, also takes old technologies and “puts some smartness” into them, Thiam says. CCTV cameras with face recognition can, for example, count people around the airport. That makes it easy to see where more personnel–like immigration officers or cleaners–are needed, so management can dispatch resources in real time.

ST Electronics is working with other companies, including some within ST Engineering, integrating their ideas in the Intelligent Airport system. One is a “smart fence” already installed at Changi, which can sense attempted intrusion on its perimeter and quickly direct one of its many cameras toward the intrusion point, zoom in and produce a live feed.

Intelligent Airport can run simulations, too. Airport managers can foresee how traffic would react if, say, a thunderstorm developed on the take-off path. A rudimentary form of artificial intelligence helps identify anomalies in the flow of operations. The information is shared through a proprietary intranet, equipped with instant messaging.

Better for passengers

Travelers will see the benefits. The system should cut delays, waiting times, and long unnecessary walks to catch a connection. It will expedite security and speed up immigration, without compromising safety.

Intelligent Airport is still under development, and ST Electronics won’t provide estimates for how much it will cost or when it will be implemented. “We are still developing the system with Changi airport authorities, with their input,” says Thiam.

Changi isn’t the only airport getting smarter. London’s Gatwick Airport, for example, is working on a self-service bag drop and a security system based on biometrics. Cincinnati’s regional airport is tracking traveler smartphones to spot congested security lines and provide wait times. But no other system is quite as comprehensive as the one developed in Singapore.

It feels unfair that Changi is the airport that’s doing the best job of minimizing the hassles of air travel. Meanwhile, most airports–the ones without movie theaters, rooftop pools, butterfly gardens, and spas–are hardly improving, if at all. So unless you’re headed to Singapore, remember to charge your Kindle before leaving.

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