Aviation sector looks to AI and 5G capabilities in post-pandemic world

A sector that is deeply impacted by the Covid-19 situation would have to look to a data-driven future to revamp its operations.

Aviation industry leaders see the potential of new technologies such as 5G, Wi-Fi 6 and artificial intelligence (AI) in boosting efficiency and improving passenger experience in a post-pandemic world.

The aviation sector, one of the most deeply impacted during the current pandemic, has been forced to undergo some unprecedented, often painful, changes to prepare itself for life after COVID-19. 

As many leaders in the industry look to a new reality where air travel could be drastically different, many are also seeing the potential of new technologies such as 5G, Wi-Fi 6, and AI to transform their sector.

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At the Huawei Asia Pacific Aviation Forum 2020 in July, aviation organisations and enterprises shared their views on how these technologies could ensure business continuity and reshape business models.

One area of keen interest is 5G, which is being deployed around the world at an unprecedented pace. By the end of this year, more than 130 commercial networks will be deployed, which is 16 times the amount from last year, according to the GSA.

The telecom industry association predicts that there will be more than 500 types of devices and 250 million subscribers. Compared with 3G and 4G, the development of 5G is much faster.

For airports, 5G will be important for many applications, such as conflict detection and resolution, automatic planning, and guidance information for pilots and controllers. These are Level 4 systems used by airports, an upgrade over previous low-level systems.

For example, to achieve A-SMGCS Level 4, 5G can be used to build an array of smart airfield ground lights, with the lights independently controlled. Compared with PLC and Wi-Fi, 5G is able to support a lot more connections; airports would be able to connect more than 10,000 independent lights simultaneously.

Other 5G applications

The good news is that 5G modules, which are used in many enterprise applications, are becoming more affordable. There are more than 30 industry modules available today, and with shipments increasing, the cost per module is expected to be lowered rapidly. This means more applications will be able to tap into 5G at the airport.

One is a self-driving solution based on 5G's centimetre-level positioning. With it, a vehicle can detect obstacles and identify traffic signs at an airfield. For regular vehicles, 5G's detection capabilities can provide driving guidance to a driver and improve traffic safety.

The precise positioning can be used both indoors and outdoors, which can also help airport managers to check on equipment and employees' locations in real time. This enables a better deployment of resources to meet dynamic demands. A 5G positioning tag, for example, can be easily deployed on any unpowered equipment and even an employee's clothes to enable this application.

5G also provides fast internet connectivity as well, as a way to transform the passenger experience. In a shuttle bus, for example, a 5G CPE (consumer premises equipment) can be installed to offer connectivity for new applications. With more than 30Mbps available for uplink, this opens up many new possibilities.

A flight information screen can display real-time information to help passengers get on the right bus. A driver behaviour identification camera can identify any dangerous driving so an AI system can send the alert to the driver to avoid accidents. Additionally, the connection can help to ensure passenger social distancing by controlling the queue management processes.

A time for change

Despite facing a difficult situation today, many airport operators understand the importance of transformation. For example, Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad (MAHB), which runs a total of 39 airports in Malaysia and one in Turkey, embarked on digital transformation journey in 2018. It aims to tap on AI, 5G, and face recognition as key enablers in a two to five-year plan to provide the best airport experience.

"We see 5G as a true enabler or a true differentiator as far as airports are concerned," said Lee Yiang Ming, the chief information officer of MAHB. "We see the power of 5G through its ability to reduce lag time, reduce latency between processing."

He pointed to the coupling of 5G with AI to develop autonomous buses that can transport passengers from one terminal to another, "with minimal human intervention, high precision and absolute safety".

"5G is something that is coming, we are hopeful to be ready for it, but more importantly, the use cases that we have defined as part of the digital airport 4.0 relies heavily on 5G," he added.

Besides a better experience, air travel will also have to contribute to a sustainable future. This could be powered by predictive maintenance, which is based on data analysis gleaned from 5G-connected sensors. With more streamlined operations, aviation companies can reduce their carbon footprint.

Alan Newbold, director of ARUP, said that using data analysis can help the sector reduce both operation carbon and embodied carbon. This effort should be part of a "real-time airport" that uses real-time data, AI, and machine learning to underpin automated and manual intelligent decision making, he noted.

Recovering from the pandemic

The first order of business now, of course, is to make it safe for passengers to fly as the world finds a way to recover from the pandemic. In China, for example, AI, 5G, and big data are providing solutions to overcome many challenges.

Zheng Hongfeng, CEO of VariFlight, pointed to two important uses of AI –- digitalisation and intellectualisation –- in a post-pandemic world that would improve airport operations.

Digitalisation calls for data to be mined extensively to help managers make operating decisions. This could be using the data from cameras to determine the actual times of planes pushing in and out of airports.

Intellectualisation calls for AI to perform more complex calculations, like developing an algorithm based on data from ADS-B (automatic dependent surveillance–broadcast) and other sources to predict a plane's estimated time of arrival. This helps cut wait times for ground handlers and vehicles, say, for refuelling purposes.

All this is possible only if data is readily available, said Zheng. It will be crucial for the aviation sector to tap on this to re-establish the business lost due to pandemic conditions, he added.