Just like a smart city, at the heart of any smart airport are communications networks
Airports are like cities in microcosm, and they face many of the same challenges as the cities they serve. Airport operators are looking to enhance safety and security for both travellers and employees, at a time when threats have been increasing. They need to manage costs and find new sources of revenue to maintain balanced, sustainable budgets. Most importantly, they need to make themselves attractive. Commercial aviation is a very competitive business, and the airports that offer the most attractive facilities and amenities — along with operational excellence — tend to win out in the competition for routes and travellers.
To accomplish these objectives, airports need to make their operations and services much smarter. Just like a smart city, at the heart of any smart airport are communications networks. Modernising their communications network infrastructure is a critical step in making an airport smart. The reasons are clear: smart airports, smart cities, smart anything depend on data and communications networks are the means for transporting and analysing that data.
Of course, airports have relied on communications networks for years. However, the demands being placed on them have changed dramatically. Historically, each of the individual services airports deployed (CCTV, LMR, wi-fi) were supported by their own individual network, typically using a variety of technologies and often managed by their own department. As the number, sophistication and bandwidth requirements of these services have all been increasing, this approach is untenable and can be an incredibly complicated, time-consuming and costly process.
As a result, airports are exploring a different approach — deploying a single, multi-service, high-performance network to support all their applications. By shifting to a multi-service network, airport operators can better prepare to deal with anticipated increases in air traffic (and associated operational demands), continued evolution and growth of airport facilities and services as well as the increased use of more bandwidth-intensive services such a high-resolution wireless video complementing fixed CCTV video.
One leading approach that has emerged is the deployment of Internet Protocol/Multi-Protocol Label Switching (IP/MPLS) networks. IP/MPLS has the capability to strictly segregate data traffic, support service prioritisation and predictable performance as demands on the network grow and deliver the levels of flexibility, security, reliability and resilience required. Predictable performance translates to securing airport CCTV video integrity in any situation.
Airports also have a burgeoning need to support wireless broadband services, and need technology that can complement or even replace existing land mobile radio (LMR) systems that are optimised for voice services rather than data. The typical approach being adopted worldwide to support mobile broadband is 4G LTE technology, which has effectively become a global standard for mobile broadband services. In addition to being widely deployed by mobile operators, LTE is also increasingly used by first responders and other organisations requiring mission-critical networks, and is expected to form a key foundation for the Internet of Things (IoT), all of which are highly relevant for airport operators.
Why does this matter? Airports are big, and airport operators need their networks to reach across their entire facility, to runways, control towers and beyond. As important, new applications and services are emerging all the time, and data volumes are constantly increasing. A truly broadband private LTE network in combination with an IP/MPLS Airport Campus data transport and horizontal IoT management strategy is ideally suited to meeting these needs.
A private LTE network can also provide an additional revenue stream, as service can be offered by the airport to all tenants and customers such as airlines and retailers, each with their own service level agreement (SLA) and priority level. A private LTE service removes the airport dependency on public services, which translates into airport operational continuity.
Another key technology airports are exploring is IoT, which holds both promise and challenges when it comes to managing the lifecycle of thousands of sensors and ensuring they remain secure. A horizontal approach to managing the lifecycle of all these sensors can address this concern, however, as it would abstract the underlying connectivity layers from the application layer so that an airport’s applications can leverage any sensor, regardless of the underlying technology.
Reliability is also incredibly important because airport networks cannot fail. If the network goes down flights can be delayed and operations can be disrupted, which can lead to substantial economic loss and risk the safety of passengers and workers. As a result, airport campus networks carry mission-critical traffic, must be highly fault tolerant and able to handle failures of multiple kinds — simultaneously. IP/MPLS technology offers levels of resiliency unmatched by other packet transport technologies.
Ultimately, communication networks can have a substantial impact on the competitiveness and success of any airport. As a result, airport operators need to carefully evaluate their options and lay a foundation that will enable them to continually adapt to changes in the market and the introduction of new technologies and services.
Richard van Wijk is the practice lead of the Aviation Programme inside Nokia. With over 25 years of experience in Telecommunications business development & consultancy, Richard has been instrumental in many projects for a number of companies like Lucent, Alcatel-Lucent and Nokia: From contracting the first SDH/DWDM projects to contracting the first LTE Air to Ground Aviation project in Europe.
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