In the race to reopen, airports are turning to facial recognition tech, AI, automation, and biometric scanners designed to deliver a “touchless” journey for our bodies and our baggage. Execution is another story.
Imagine entering an airport, sharing your vital signs, passing through security and boarding an airplane, all without touching any screens, tickets, or people. According to authorities, that’s where we are headed. Considering the clear and present danger of disease, the question is how fast can (and should) we get there?
The answer depends largely on where in the world you are. At Singapore’s Changi Airport, thermal screeners take the temperatures of all staff and visitors entering transit areas. Hong Kong International Airport is using three self-driving, “intelligent sterilization” robots to clean public areas and restrooms. The robots aren’t coming — they’re here.
And in Abu Dhabi, Etihad Airways announced the beta testing of self-service kiosks developed by Elenium Automation. The kiosks can monitor a passenger’s temperature, heart rate and respiratory rate, flagging those who need medical attention. While this technology is not designed to diagnose any medical condition, it can process huge amounts of biometric data.
“We are testing this technology because we believe it will not only help in the current COVID-19 outbreak, but also into the future, with assessing a passenger’s suitability to travel and thus minimizing disruptions,” said Jorg Oppermann, Vice President Hub and Midfield Operations, Etihad Airways.
Comparatively, the U.S. is slow on the uptake. Since 2015, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) —the agency with authority over the security of traveling Americans— has been using biometrics tests for identity verification, not health screening. The organization is not currently running any programs geared specifically to combat coronavirus. Absent a major operational overhaul, domestic flying still means submitting to pat downs, crowding into packed terminals, and touching communal bag tag screens.
Companies in the private sector are racing to fill the gap. “The rest of the world is much further ahead than U.S. airports in terms of technology. We have been talking to both airports and airlines, as they try and figure out the new normal,”says Derek Peterson, CEO of Soter Technologies, citing interest from United Airlines and Abu Dhabi airport. His company, based in Ronkonkoma, NY, developed a new device called “Symptom Sense” that screens blood oxygen levels, temperature, heart rate, and respiration rates without making physical contact. It costs $35,000 per machine, and is expected to hit the market in June.
HOW MUCH DATA IS ENOUGH?
In order to reopen without sparking a viral resurgence, airports must prepare to mine a broad range of health stats. According to medical authorities, just taking our temperature is not enough to screen for a virus with an asymptomatic incubation period. The Journal of the American Medical Association just published a study showing less than a third of 5,700 patients hospitalized with Covid-19 at Northwell Health facilities actually had a fever upon triage — even though fever is viewed as a key indicator of the disease.
This means travelers should get ready for a major shift from mere image surveillance to biometric tracking. Whether this shift will be permanent, and how electronic health data will be shared remains to be seen. But it is happening.
“As we have seen in previous outbreaks such as SARS and MERS, the pattern and speed by which a disease moves around the globe is inextricably linked to the pattern and speed by which passengers move,” says Barbara Dalibard, CEO of SITA (Société Internationale de Télécommunications Aéronautiques).
We live in a world where technology makes it possible to monitor everyone all the time, so why aren’t we better prepared to stop the spread of disease? It comes down to control. Not every country has submitted to mass surveillance, due to complex problems of privacy and cybersecurity. Consent in exchange for data-sharing is still considered a civil liberty in much of the modern world.
For these reasons, a truly “touchless” airport may still be far in the future.
THE BIGGEST HURDLES
Privacy is a simple problem, without a simple solution. You wouldn’t want governments tracking your health data for any reason other than to use it for the immediate purpose of safeguarding travel. Your health stats shouldn’t stick around on an open database to be sold to advertisers, employers, or political action committees, for example.
“We believe in increasing access to data, in order to drive innovation. But there are big questions about collective consent under pandemic conditions. We can say, yes, as a society we consent. But our data needs to be managed in a well-governed, trustworthy way,” says Jeni Tennison, Vice President and Chief Strategy Adviser at the Open Data Institute.
If “well-governed” and “trustworthy” sound like distant pipe dreams to you, join the club. Yet, Tennison sees a future in which airlines and airports will securely share health statistics exclusively with public health authorities such as the World Health Organization and the UK’s National Health Service. These statistics could help illustrate flows of passengers around the globe, rather than monetize personal profiles. If all health data gathered at airports was anonymized, safe travels just might be attainable.
Cooperation is the second biggest issue. Countries need to cooperate in order to allow travelers to cross borders. A global agreement on how to pre-screen passengers would help. If only carefully screened travelers are allowed on a plane, you would be more willing to accept them into your country. For now, however, it seems nationalist isolation is winning over global solidarity, as the world endures both economic and societal contractions.
GETTING TO TOUCHLESS
Without one single governing body in charge, the global aviation industry will recover in an ad-hoc, airline by airline, airport by airport manner. Progress will come in fits and starts.
The UN International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), based in Montreal, is trying to change this. On April 29, ICAO announced the establishment of a new COVID-19 Aviation Recovery Task Force, created by representatives from the 36 countries on its governing council. It is intended to leverage “all available government and industry data” to create sector-wide solutions.
Probable solutions coming out of this task force will be influenced by ICAO’s partners, including Montreal’s Airport Council International (ACI) World, dubbed “the voice of the world’s airports” and the aforementioned SITA, a multinational IT company which provides services to over 1,000 airports and the majority of the world’s airlines. Both of these organizations believe a touchless or “low touch” experience is the best way forward.
“Technologies such as biometrics, automated e-gates, robotics, and AI [artificial intelligence] will play an important role, now and in the future,” said Nina Brooks, Director of Security, Facilitation, and IT, at ACI.
The value of AI at airports is its ability to “turn data into business intelligence,” adds Antoine Rostworowski, ACI’s Deputy Director General. For example, the more health data kiosks ‘read,’ the better able airports will be at identifying which passengers need further investigation. AI-assisted computer vision could also further improve the efficiency of CT-scan checkpoints — thereby reducing stagnant crowds.
SITA staffers also say AI can biometrically match passengers to their bags. “AI will be able to recognize unique scuff marks, creases, and material characteristics to distinguish between seemingly identical bags and match them to the correct passenger.” This would enable passengers to “Self-Bag-Drop” using their own mobile devices, without the need to touch grubby screens inside an airport.
“Automation is of paramount importance. Contactless, self-service technologies at every step will facilitate passenger flow, cutting queues while ensuring a social distancing-friendly passenger experience through the use of secure biometrics and passenger mobile devices,” says SITA CEO Dalibard.
More controversial is Dalibard’s view of Blockchain, which she feels is the future of airport data-sharing. “We believe that Blockchain is highly fit for the air transport industry. It has the potential to securely share information – such as identity and flight operations data – across numerous stakeholders without relinquishing control or compromising the security of the data itself.”
The issue, once again, comes back to control. Blockchain is an information ledger, which is becoming more widely accepted in finance and healthcare industries, but remains circumspect in aviation because it requires governments to accept these ledgers, without the ability to control them. The whole point of Blockchain is that it can’t be controlled by governments.
A UNIFIED APPROACH
If anything positive comes from this pandemic, it is that travel itself has proven to be the world’s economic engine. Bridges, not borders, are the only way global aviation can assure safe travels. We need a unified approach to implementing the technologies that will reveal the touchless future — and fast.
Jennifer Leigh Parker is a writer and travel journalist with more than 10 years experience.
By: Jennifer Leigh Parker
Photo: Autonomous Cleaning Machine at Changi Airport, Singapore COURTESY CHANGI AIRPORT
PAGINA 100 POPAYAN COLOMBIA