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Airport Innovation in a Time of COVID

As of the time of writing, the globally reported coronavirus cases have exceeded 90 million and almost 2 million people have died amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. This is more than 2 times the population of a country like Fiji. However, the impact of Covid-19 is not just on human health. The economy is badly affected as well with a huge number of brick-and-mortar shops closed and many enterprises going bankrupt because of a slowdown in business. In the same vein, the airport industry has also suffered heavily. Adding contactless solutions, increasing the level of sanitation, and keeping social distancing for both passengers and employees have never been so important for airports.

Contactless Technologies

Touchless Services

Technologies that use iris, facial and voice recognition scanning have been deployed in the self-check-in process as well as immigration clearance points at some airports around the world. We have seen leading airports such as Changi International Airport deploy proximity touch screens at kiosks and infrared sensors to track finger movements which are to allow contactless check-in and baggage drop-off without touching the screens.

Vision-Box provides end-to-end seamless flow at airports to automate travelers’ journeys through contactless biometric identification systems. A single biometric identity token will be used across all subsequent checkpoints all the way from check-in, bag drop, security access, immigration & customs to boarding. Its Orchestra™ platform gives authorities full awareness of the traveler clearance procedure, identity, background check result, and risk level. Vision-Box is working with Emirates Airlines at Dubai International Airport to deploy the contactless passenger experience.

In Hong Kong and Sydney, Elenium Automation has, in partnership with Amazon Web Services, deployed their ‘hands-free’ technologies that enable touchless use of devices through voice recognition and hand movement detection with their latest sensor array, thereby further minimizing the potential of any viral or bacterial transmission.

Contactless Solutions in Elevators

Elevators are one of the most closed and dangerous places as the tendency for cross infection is higher. Besides frequent clearing and disinfection, some airports are using infrared technology to allow passengers to get to the desired floor by hovering their hand over the sensor for activating the lift button.

Easpeed, a China-based deep tech startup, provides a contactless elevator solution with hologram technology and materials. Its DCT-Plate lenses project an image in the air, while its interactive hologram technology lets people exchange images and data without using other media. With the hardware easily installed in the elevators at airports, travelers can go to the desired floor by touching the image of the lift buttons in the air, which can avoid the spread of germs as travelers do not actually touch the lift buttons. During the pandemic, Easpeed raised RMB 58.5 million (around US$9 million) in its Series A round from Anhui Quantum Fund and other investors, in August 2020. The fund will be mainly used for the update of core technologies and materials, business development, and market expansion. Although their technology has also been used on self-service ticketing machines, their core technologies are expected to be applied in many other sectors and sub-sectors.

Sanitation Innovation

Ultraviolet-C light technology

As the effectiveness of UV-C light to successfully kill flu-related germs and sterilize objects has been shown, UV-C light has been widely popular in hospitals and airports.

More cleaning robots are equipped with UV-C light technology for cleaning and disinfection. Hong Kong Airport has deployed self-moving Intelligent Sterilization Robots (ISR) to kill germs. Each ISR is equipped with both a UV light sterilizer and an air sterilizer, and its head can spin 360 degrees to spray disinfectant. Hong Kong Airport claimed that the robot can sterilize up to 99.99% of bacteria and viruses in the air and on object surfaces very fast. Pittsburgh International Airport also partnered with Carnegie Robotics to put UVC fixtures on its floor-cleaning robots. Carnegie Robotics developed AI and robotic systems for the Nilfisk floor scrubbers so they can map and clean an area autonomously. Now, the UVC light will pass over the airport’s floors for a deeper cleaning after cleaning the floor surface with water pressure and chemical disinfectant.

Changi Airport is currently doing a trial on using UV-C light technology to disinfect handrails on escalators. As the handrails move over the device, the UV-C light would automatically sterilizes the handrails to keep them pathogen-free. Products with similar functions include Clearwin which is manufactured in South Korea. The product can sterilize the moving belts/handrail surface on escalators that are constantly touched by hundreds of thousands of people each day.

Coating Technologies

Some airports have deployed antimicrobial coating technologies to kill harmful bacteria and viruses in order to ensure that surfaces and touchpoints in the airport are safe for travelers and their employees.

London City Airports implemented the antimicrobial surface coating solution from Zonitise whose product can constantly eliminate harmful pathogens including TGEV Coronavirus, a model virus for Sars Cov 2, as well as many other harmful bacteria and viruses. Zonitise stated that the treatment is warranted for up to 12 months after a single application, ensuring long-term protection.

Similarly, Kastus, an Ireland-based startup, also applies antiviral and antimicrobial coatings to glass and ceramic surfaces to work against bacteria and viruses. In this respect, they offer clients from different industries the opportunity to retrofit and protect touchscreens already deployed.

Social Distancing

Passenger Density Management

Although many countries have deployed social distancing regulations, it is hard to monitor passenger density and comply with regulations. Therefore, some startups created solutions to manage social distancing with computer vision, machine learning, IoT sensors, etc.

Lauretta and CrowdVision are two computer vision startups that use video cameras and machine learning to monitor congestion and manage passenger density. CrowdVision uses both computer vision and lidar to help airports make sure passengers and staff remain at safe distances from each other. Singapore-based startup Lauretta can capture failures in social distance, and allow for a longitudinal view of social distancing risks. It also developed an algorithm to detect people with covid19 symptoms.

Veovo’s Passenger Density Management solution bundles location analysis from various IoT sensors, with machine learning and an alert framework, to monitor crowd density in queues and spaces across airports, enabling them to take action if social distancing limits are at risk of being breached.

Virtual Queuing

With virtual queuing software, passengers can queue up without being physically present, enhancing social distancing among travelers and creating less crowding. It can be deployed at airport checkpoints and boarding areas.

Veovo’s Virtual Queueing solution enables travelers to pre-book a time slot for processing at airport checkpoints, rather than having to wait in line. It enables airports to control queue entry, preventing too many people from congregating in one area and evenly distributing passengers across the airport’s checkpoints. Available time slots are adjusted in real-time, based on queue wait times, changing arrival patterns and processing capacity so that passengers show up at the optimum time.

Trends going into 2021

The mass production and global distribution of coronavirus vaccines have provided light at the end of the tunnel for all of us. However, the impact of Covid19 on the world’s economy, especially the airport industry, will still take a few years to recover. While Covid19 has affected the travel and airport industry tremendously, it has been proven to accelerate some innovations in many sub-sectors, changing the priorities of airports globally. Before Covid19, some hot topics in the airport industry were operational efficiency, loyalty, and personalization, seamless journey, revenue optimization, distribution strategy, etc. Now there is a shift, airports tend to focus more on early and fast detection of Covid19, contactless and fully sanitized seamless journeys, restoring trust in travel, social distancing enforcement, innovative new services, and low-cost energy-saving solutions.



Rachelle Wu Rong is one of our Ventures Analyst (Travel) in Plug and Play Singapore.

As an in-house venture capital, our goal is to fund the teams that are building the defensible businesses of the future. By leveraging our capital, our network of VCs, and our corporate partners, we give our portfolio companies an added advantage. Find out more here!

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