WHY SMALL BYTES
Digitalization has found its way into our everyday lives. Not only is it reinventing business processes, it is also fundamentally changing social communication. Munich Airport is responding to this trend with its digitalization strategy. The goal is to future-proof the business model and at the same time offer passengers a range of innovative services to support and accompany them on their journey. A helpful robot was already used on a trial basis in Terminal 2 for providing information for passengers.
Trial run in Terminal 2
The man and woman have just arrived by train from the satellite building and are taking the escalator to Terminal 2. They pause briefly, look at each other, smile, and wave. Their greeting is intended for a white, approximately 1.2 meter tall figure made of plastic and modeled on a human form. She lifts her right arm, raises her hand, and returns the greeting? The photographer kneeling down in front of the figure clicks a couple of times and calls out: «Great, Josie Pepper!» This is the product name of the communications robot tested by Munich Airport in February in a pilot project. The humanoid robot was developed by the French robotics experts, SoftBank Robotics. Josie Pepper's «brain» was developed together with IBM and Watson artificial intelligence. Not only can it link information in split seconds, it is also programmed to recognize emotions.
Educating a robot
«Josie Pepper, how are you?» calls the photographer and the robot turns back to him instantly. The technology behind this is the integrated microphone, two HD cameras, and different sensors. Josie Pepper’s job is to interact with people around her. «But she still has a lot to learn,» says Stephan Schmid. Mr Schmid is Innovation Manager for IT at the airport and responsible for programming Josie Pepper. The intention is for the robot to respond in future to questions from passengers, though this is not that easy as Mr Schmid explains using an example: The two questions «How do I get to Gate K12?» and «I have to find my flight to Rome, how do I get there?» appear to deal with two different issues. «The robot has to learn that the same intention is behind both,» explains Mr Schmid. This is precisely what he tested with Josie Pepper for four weeks in February under real-life conditions. They started out with a long list of possible intentions on the part of passengers, questions derived on this basis, and the correct responses to these questions. Josie Pepper became more confident interacting with passengers with every day that passed. The predefined responses as well as special knowledge about Munich Airport are accessed for this purpose via a Wi-Fi connection. «Everything has to be working properly first before we can let her loose on our passengers in the long term,» says Mr Schmid.
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Digitalization does not stop even at airports
Konrad Best really likes the Josie Pepper project, it ties in ideally with the airport’s digitalization strategy, which he and his team have developed over recent years. «Everyone today is talking about digitalization, but it is not possible to define what this trend actually means in really general terms. Every company has to find out for itself, its processes, and its business model,» says the Head of Digital Development at Munich Airport. He came on board originally some two years ago and has a background in the music industry, where he witnessed the decline in the sector during the nineties. The music industry did not recognize the technological revolution that the music format MP3 and corresponding platforms signified for vinyls and CDs. «At the time, 50 percent of revenue were wiped out within a period of two years,» he recalls. That is why it is so important for an airport too to keep a very close eye on the potential impact of new technologies on business. Though Mr Best is not thinking of a fundamental revolution in air traffic itself: «I do not believe that real interactions will be replaced by virtual ones in the foreseeable future.» But there are definitely trends in the non-aviation sector that impact the airport’s business model and for which answers have to be found: for example, apps that organize parking totally independently or online shopping with delivery within just a few hours. Passengers could then have their evening meal delivered directly to their homes after a long journey, rather than shopping themselves at the airport.
Mr Best’s team of six employees keeps in close contact with experts in all specialist areas. It is important for him that the measures adopted by the airport to tackle and progress the topic of digitalization are developed with the specific business in mind: In other words, where this megatrend offers opportunities for Munich Airport. Mr Best feels that the relationship with the end customer is a primary target in this respect: «Passengers have typically interacted with the airline to date, simply using the airport as an infrastructure. We can make direct contact with passengers thanks to the new technologies and make them attractive offers tailored to their personal needs all along the travel chain.» Up until now, the airport has simply provided the same information for all customers across its media. However, the needs of business travelers differ considerably from those of tourists: «For the manager who regularly flies to and from Munich, he or she is not so much interested in information on where which flight is departing from or how to get from Terminal 2 to the satellite building. But finding out before heading off in the morning that the S-Bahn suburban train is not running or that there is congestion on the A9 would be helpful. And also immediately offering an alternative.» Transfer passengers in Munich in turn are not interested in how to get to the airport, but they may find information in their native language useful. For example, information about lounges, shopping or where to get a typical Bavarian veal sausage (Weißwurst) breakfast at the airport could be sent in Chinese directly to their cellphone.
Individual services and personal information tailored to the needs of every individual passenger therefore represent the first obvious field of action in the digitalization strategy of Munich Airport. The critical question is how to make contact with the passenger. «This is comparatively simple in principle today,» says Mr Best: whenever passengers use the airport’s free Wi-Fi service. The airport will offer passengers a host of new services in the future. They can therefore be accompanied seamlessly from their door to their arrival location by a mobile travel assistant and receive specially tailored information on traffic events as well as in relation to route alternatives, availability of parking spaces, the expected duration of check-in, and the waiting times at security. The same information will also be available for the arrival airport, including the expected waiting time at baggage retrieval. The airport is working together with Siemens at present on a suitable platform, which is due to launch this year. The mobile travel assistant is intended to interact with all of the usual route planners and navigation systems and also integrate information from car pooling and taxi services. A partial application already exists for passengers, namely an app that allows passengers to pre-book parking spaces online at the airport. Customers can see at a glance at what price a space can be booked very close to the terminal or where more affordable spaces are available. Moreover, they can add on packages such as car wash and fill-up and repair services during their absence.
Connecting data streams, abolishing silos
In addition to such ancillary travel services for passengers, Munich Airport has defined three further fields in its digitalization strategy. Namely, data connectivity, automation of certain processes, and data privacy. Connectivity means that information acquired by the airport can also be used for other requirements once it has been evaluated accordingly. Data silos will scarcely exist any more in future. Konrad Best knows what he is talking about since he also worked for a large mobile network operator for a number of years: «Based on our users’ data, we could already tell a year in advance which customer would cancel.» Other important information can also be derived from data of passengers visiting the airport. «When we know, for example, how many people will linger where and when, because they are logged in to the Wi-Fi network, this information can be used to plan emergency escape routes as well as shopping concepts, traffic infrastructure, security checks, and much more. We therefore no longer need theoretical predictions, rather we use real data. This reflects reality much more precisely.» Added to this is the emergence of the Internet of Things, as it is known: «Soon we will have bags fitted with wireless chips and components, which call the technician themselves before they break,» says Mr Best. In a city environment such as an airport, entirely new applications can be developed in this respect.
On the topic of automation, Mr Best recalls the most recent project, among others, dealing with self-drive vehicles: this involved a field test on the apron at Munich Airport in 2017. During the Family Days, more than 1,500 visitors were safely transported past the parked aircraft by electronically operated minibuses from the French start-up Easytrack. Five laser sensors on the bus scan the environment in this model. If an obstacle emerges, the bus responds immediately with a gentle braking action. Fully automatic emergency braking is also possible. Munich Airport meanwhile now uses the driverless buses as shuttles for employees.
Data privacy as a top priority
A very high level of data privacy is essential for all applications in the course of digitalization. «Munich Airport captures data very defensively. We only store what we actually need for a particular service and inform customers about this in a very transparent way,» says Mr Best. «For example, if we need the flight number, we do not ask for the date of birth at the same time.» Trust and data privacy are extremely important values in the framework of digitalization and this is the message the airport would like to convey to its customers.
New center to fight cyber crime
An important role is also played in this respect by the Information Security Hub, which was opened at the end of January in the presence of the President of the Federal Office for IT Security Arne Schönbohm. The center covers a vast field of activity, ranging from warding off simple data theft to strategies for risk scenarios. To combat these risks efficiently, the Hub’s experts train Munich Airport's IT experts as well as those employed by other airport operators, airlines, and service providers. Apart from basic training as an aviation security specialist, further relevant advanced training is also offered. This should allow an IT community to develop in the coming years, which specializes in overcoming the challenges posed by air traffic and will also implement projects jointly in the future. What lies behind the concept is the knowledge that all stakeholders in air traffic are facing the same challenges in relation to IT security. «An airport alone can never sufficiently specialize in this respect and recruit the appropriate professionals,» says Marc Lindike, who heads up the Hub. «We are competing against companies like SAP, Apple, or Google for the best experts, which is why we offer them a very special, attractive working environment.»
Every company has to define for itself what digitalization means for their business model.
Mr Lindike’s team set up a training airport – at least from an IT perspective – in a former warehouse. The facility contains everything that constitutes an airport in terms of cyber security. A hundred servers were installed over an area of 1,500 square meters, with more than a hundred PCs as well as accessories such as cameras and printers. «We can perform real-life simulations of cyber attacks here as well as ways to defend against them,» says Mr Lindike. He enjoys being part of the teams that are to attack the airport’s systems. «We need to understand precisely how cyber attacks operate if we are to develop effective strategies to combat them.» Apart from warding off hacker attacks, the experts in the new center also thoroughly test security concepts of external providers. The experts are also heavily focused on the forthcoming Internet of Things. «The number of computers is set to multiply as a result of digitalization and radically new technologies will find their way to the airport. We have to be prepared for this,» says Mr Lindike.
«Can I help you?»
To be a trailblazer but at the same time to act in a responsible and reasoned way based on sound experience is an apt description of the airport’s digitalization strategy. This also applies for the robot Josie Pepper. The underlying artificial intelligence is actually designed to enable the robot to learn automatically. «We deliberately excluded this however,» says Julia Schmidt, who is responsible for this project on behalf of the Terminal 2 company: «We did not want any jokester teaching the little one nonsense.» That is why she and her colleague got together every evening and analyzed the internal memory with the daily log. Once all of the results of the pilot project are available, Josie Pepper could be used long term at various locations in Terminal 2. «We are focusing primarily on important flash points where passengers frequently need information,» says Ms Schmidt, «where which flight is departing, how long the journey to the satellite building takes, or which restaurants and shopping facilities are available near the gate.»
The robot should be able to provide the answers herself in future, and even in different languages. «It was important to us that Josie Pepper is not viewed as a publicity stunt, rather has a real role to play. This also includes de-stressing passengers in frantic situations. Josie Pepper has even managed to get a smile from stressed passengers and hardened frequent travelers on occasion and willingly allows herself to be photographed for selfies,» explains Ms Schmidt. Passengers had to go to her though in this case, although she would also have happily rolled up to them. Further tests are needed though to establish how well Josie Pepper can move through the passenger streams without constituting an obstacle. «That is why she is not allowed to move initially. But we will also overcome these challenges,» says Julia Schmidt with ease. She knows that the future has just begun.