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Airport labs: a testing ground for new innovation

More and more airports around the world are pushing the boundaries of innovation by setting up incubator labs on their premises, creating a collaborative meeting point for start-ups, developers and tech experts.

All around the world, airports are keen to compete by placing themselves at the forefront of innovation.

Many cutting-edge inventions often find some of their first applications in the constrained airport environment; from artificial intelligence, virtual reality, driverless vehicles, biometrics and smart infrastructure, airports make for perfect testing grounds due to the fact that they often act like a microcosm, welcoming a large number of international guests, combining different means of transport with retail, security, catering and crowd management, all while trying to maintain a sustainable operation.

By creating innovation labs under their roofs, airports have managed to tap into a mutually beneficial relationship: while the airport gets to implement the latest tech in everything from passenger flows to advanced security solutions and lucrative digital retail offerings, small start-ups and individual developers can enjoy useful financial backing at the start, as well as use the airport as a launching pad from concept to commercialization later on.

The Living Lab at Changi Airport

As the world’s sixth busiest airport for international traffic, Changi Airport is perfectly placed to break new ground.

At the beginning of 2017, Changi Airport Group (CAG) partnered with the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) to launch its Living Lab, a $35m programme to drive innovation over the next five years. The project came after a string of world-first innovations were implemented over the years at the airport, and helped cement its commitment to “increase its pace of innovation” and step up its competitiveness.

The Living Lab brings together CAG with innovation-driven companies and start-ups, while opening up the live airport environment to testing new technologies. In particular, the centre focuses on developing new solutions in four specific areas: automation and robotics, data analytics and the internet of things, non-intrusive security technologies and smart infrastructure management.

By entering the lab, companies would be able to tap into a “rich eco-system” of more than 55 million passengers passing through Changi Airport each year, generating over S$2 billion in concession sales.

Paris-Charles de Gaulle’s Innovation Hub

Paris-based international airport operator Groupe ADP, which builds, develops and manages Paris-Charles de Gaulle, Paris-Orly and Paris-Le Bourget, revealed last year its €16m Innovation Hub, as part of its Connect 2020 strategic plan.

The hub was inspired by technologies implemented at some of the group’s airports since 2010, such as an automated baggage drop-off, a transport comparison service, and the mobile software solution PRIMA, which enables frontline staff to better welcome and inform passengers.

It offers companies access to a 300-plus m2 space located in the heart of the new Groupe ADP head office at Paris-Charles de Gaulle, to be used as a hybrid space that can host showrooms, workshops, events and meetings with partners and staff. The showroom in particular is a place where new digital technologies, such as virtual reality headsets, drones and interactive tables can be showcased and put to the test, all financed by Groupe ADP.

In just a year, the space was used to host 250 events with 9,500 visitors, 15 experiments and welcomed five incubators partners.

One of its highlights was the “Play your Airport” project, which challenged start-ups, students, the general public, as well as Groupe ADP employees to imagine what airport of the future will look like, in areas such as accessibility, services, security and customer service.

The hub also helped launch an automated parking valet at Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport, the fruit of a partnership between Groupe ADP and Stanley-Robotics.

San Diego’s Innovation Lab

San Diego International Airport (SAN) has been in operation since 1928, with the airport celebrating 90 years of service this year.

While SAN has been enjoying steady growth both in passenger numbers (which reached a record 22 million in 2017) and profits, in a recent report the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority identified a few barriers to innovation, such as long sales cycles and a highly fragmented market.

To counteract these trends, SAN founded its own Innovation Lab for companies to develop airport-related products and services.

The lab hosts two 16-week innovation programmes a year, which offers teams the opportunity to be guided step-by-step in their creative process, from prototype to presenting in front of the airport authority. Successful projects can then be implemented at the airport. In return, SAN keeps a negotiable revenue share from successful inventions implemented within airports and similar industries for the next five to ten years.

This year, the airport put forward two call-outs for participants interested in developing innovative parking and customer service solutions.

In the past, the lab helped deliver FuelRod, the first reusable, portable charging system that allows travellers to fuel (charge) their mobile devices on the go, and AtYourGate, an airport-wide passenger mobile delivery app used to order food or retail items to a specific location inside the terminal.

Munich Airport’s LabCampus

This year, Munich Airport joined the ranks and embarked on a future-focused project, under the name of LabCampus.

The project will see an innovation centre built on the airport campus, at the heart of a busy transport hub with links to over 260 destinations worldwide and room for real estate development.

LabCampus’s managing director Dr Marc Wagener told Airport Industry Review that the new hub wants to be “the physical place where people and companies come together in a very creative and open environment.”

The airport has already entered into future partnerships with Siemens and SAP, as well as local research institutions, to look into areas such as future mobility, logistics and cybersecurity.

But going forward, Munich Airport will remain open to new areas of development, including the possibility to work with companies whose expertise is removed from the airport environment, and instead work in industries such as aerospace, digitalisation, energy and mobility.

Hartsfield-Jackson tests the waters

Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport – the busiest airport in the world – is currently testing the waters and considering developing its own innovation centre.

According to city documents, the airport recently reached out to companies that can “research and analyse the current and future potential of an Innovation Center (virtual and physical) across aviation and […] how it can be realised at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.”

Hartsfield-Jackson is already a member of the American Association of Airport Executives’ Airport Innovation Accelerator, the industry’s prime location to explore, discuss, and launch innovation in airports.

The tentative call for action follows last year’s ATL Thinks!, a two-month long hackathon organised by Hartsfield-Jackson, which brought together college students, professionals, and start-ups less than three years old from across the Metro Atlanta area to focus on the developing the airport of the future. The innovators designed solutions in response to four different challenges, such as enhancing the airport guest experience, attracting guests to airport retail locations, creating green airports and developing digital recognition software.


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