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No sector has been more disrupted than transportation due to the global pandemic. In fact, the only certainty for the sector is constant change for the foreseeable future.
In response, the industry is now looking to technology to build business resiliency to survive and thrive regardless of what’s ahead. New technologies such as AI, robotics, autonomous vehicles, leveraging partner ecosystems and developing digital platforms are critical.
Hong Kong Airport’s former CIO, Andy Bien, has 30 years’ experience in aviation and is now Huawei’s Chief Digital Officer for Global Aviation. He says COVID has forced the industry to think hard about the road ahead. “Not only to survive,” Bien says, “but to take this opportunity to reset our thinking about the assumption that growth is always guaranteed.”
According to Bien, digital transformation was already a hot topic before COVID; however, it was mainly focused around reducing cost, increasing efficiency, or providing a better passenger experience.
Now it is about the industry’s survival.
“We all believe aviation will recover, but the timing remains to be seen,” he says. “While we were previously plagued with how to meet growing demand with limited capacity – acquiring new planes, building new runways … the focus has now shifted to health and safety. How to maintain a hygienic environment and make sure passengers can safely travel. Most passengers will be very reluctant to meet another person or be in contact with any surface. But they’re comfortable with using their own devices and using a touchless experience throughout the airport. Robots may even replace human workforce in some areas.”
Following the precipitous drop in passenger numbers, many aviation industry suppliers are facing significant financial difficulties. Meanwhile, governments have poured large amounts of public money into keeping the industry aloft.
“Airports and our suppliers have to minimize cost, and the benefit of cloud can really assist the aviation industry in a big way,” Bien says.
For example, an entire airport can be built in virtual reality – a so-called “digital twin” of the real, physical airport.
But far from being only a visual tool, this digital twin can be linked to systems that use artificial intelligence and machine learning to take streams of data from all over the airport. That real-world data can then be used to spot operational inefficiencies, and the systems can adjust resourcing schedules to improve the alignment of activities.
“The efficiency of an airport is very much related to how fast the team can do turnarounds of incoming aircraft,” Bien says. “To be able to understand and organize the resources on the ground is very important to this efficiency. It’s very complicated – getting all the aerobridges allocated and scheduled for use by inbound and outbound airplanes, for example. Humans can only focus their attention on a particular area and may not see everything happening in areas they’re not paying attention to. However, a digital twin of the airport can have a machine understanding what is happening across the whole real airport. A digital twin can both alert you to certain situations as well as automating some responses – not just recommending them, but actually arranging parking spots for a plane or scheduling the cleaning of toilets, for example.”
According to Bien, it’s impossible for an airport or one supplier to do everything needed to build such mission-critical, complex systems.
“A lot of work that needs to be done to support that,” he says. “The algorithms need to be developed and they’re very specific to the particular use cases you are facing, whether airfield management or terminal management, transportation or even passenger needs. To develop them, airports need to work with different experts across all the areas.
“However, what is common underneath it all is an AI platform, such as what’s provided by Huawei. Other companies are attempting to do the same, but Huawei has certain advantages such as building AI capability in at the chip level, so you have the chips, the machines, and the software all open to allow for different experts to develop their algorithms on. In the past, all the activities of the airport had to be reported via trunk mobile radio systems – walkie talkies, basically.”
Experts in each field would then manually work with the information and respond accordingly.
“But with an AI system, the system can use machine learning to detect all the milestones of servicing an incoming flight automatically,” he says.
Bien says not only is everything in the airport now connected, but with more roles being performed by machines, wireless network performance is absolutely critical.
“In Hong Kong, we have experimented with robots since 2019, and they are coming into great use now, particularly now there’s a restriction on the number of people in the terminal,” he says. We’re using the robots to do cleaning and inspections and even deliveries. Another similar technology is autonomous vehicles. Previously the airport experienced shortages of labour, but now with COVID, the workforce is even less predictable than before. People might need to be quarantined, for example.”
Bien explains that these driverless technologies are very useful to keep airport operations stable, even when workforce supply is not.
“In order to do these things, you need really strong, low-latency connectivity,” he says. “Huawei has a very strong offering in cloud, big data, mobility, and connectivity to facilitate Internet of Things.”
According to Bien, moving from the “client” side as CIO of Hong Kong Airport to the “vendor” side of leading Global Aviation for Huawei has been an interesting experience.
“As a client, I realized the extent to which we relied on technology partners to deliver digital transformations,” he says. “At Huawei, as a supplier, I have an insight into the great potential of how technology can add tremendous value to their customers. In these turbulent times, it takes a trusting and collaborative approach to come out even stronger than before. I believe we are at another inflection point where digital technology can truly enable us to a sustainable future,” he reflects.
“It takes a collaborative approach, with domain experts and technology partners, to be able to develop new perspectives and explore solutions.”
See the full interview with Andy Bien, Huawei’s Chief Digital Officer for Global Aviation, here.
Huawei will host Huawei Connect 2021 in Shanghai from September 23 to 25. The theme of this year's event is Dive into Digital. We're going to dive deep into the practical application of technologies like cloud, AI, and 5G in all industries, and how they can make organizations of all shapes and sizes more efficient, more versatile, and ultimately more resilient as we move towards economic recovery.
*This article was originally published by CIO.