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Beacon Technology Will Transform How We Travel Through Airports

Jun 18, 2014 6:00 am

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How many people will trade in their privacy for a few extra deals? Beacon technology vendors will need to provide lots of benefits to the users to get them on board.

— Jason Clampet

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Estimote provides Beacon technology to Heathrow Airport. Estimote


One of the highlights of this year’s SITA IT Summit in Brussels is a close look at the promise of beacons and intelligent mobility technology to simplify the travel experience.

This technology, in its various forms, will allow us to clear through the terminal process faster than ever before and will also allow a number of creative applications which will enhance our journey.

Before the start of the summit, Skift spoke with Ben Wagenaar, Technology Innovation Architect at Heathrow Airport, to explain this technology and its potential. Wagenaar also shared insights from the trials Heathrow and Virgin Atlantic carried out to test beacon-based applications as a passenger experience enhancement for their customers.

Skift: What is Beacon Technology and how does it work? Is it the same as Near Field Communications (NFC)?

Wagenaar: Unlike NFC technology which is chip-based and only works in proximity of a few centimeters, Beacons work on Bluetooth low-energy frequency, and can receive signals from up to 20-30 meters.

Skift: Does beacon localization work the same as that we find with GPS on our smart phones?

Wagenaar: Whereas GPS shows where you are in the world, working off Geo-location GPS receivers which pick up a satellite broadcast, beacons can flag up what is around you based on triggers from nearby transmitters. The Beacon emits a unique signature and the transmitters can recognize the unique signature of the beacon on the smartphone which can then be used by an API (Application Programming Interface) to carry out any number of functions and trigger apps.

Skift: So how would applications of beacon technology benefit consumers and make travel better?

Wagenaar: Within airports, you could expect the initial growth of beacon application development to be airline-led programs, with the main focus around using them to simplify and improve the passenger experience with check-in and boarding.

Virgin Atlantic has carried out tests at Heathrow using beacons to trigger the boarding pass to appear on the device automatically. The Virgin Atlantic trial is over now, and was successful. We’re now discussing what the next steps might be.

Skift: What challenges did you find during these trials?

Wagenaar: Because beacons work across the same frequency range as Wi-Fi, one of our trial objectives at Heathrow when first reviewing the technology was to understand the possible impact of radio interference from so many devices used daily. In testing we decided to turn down the range of beacon transmitters to a shorter distance, thus reducing any impact.

Skift: Are there any other areas of the travel sector which could benefit from the use of beacons to enhance their interactions with consumers?

Wagenaar: There are many potential benefits to the travel industry. Take for example the question of review fraud. There are vendors complaining about false negative reviews on sites like TripAdvisor or even the locations themselves going to the review site and posting false positive reviews. Beacons would eliminate that. Because the beacon has a unique signature, the review site could ensure that the person reviewing was actually at the location, validate the review.

Skift: We notice that Apple, for example, puts stock in beacon technology and is expanding their investment in this area, do you think this will be the future of how we interact with retail in future?

Wagenaar: The term iBeacon is an Apple technology, although Android also has beacon capability and is expected to deploy. The beacon has the potential to be a mainstay technology. There is more room for growth. By 2025 intelligent mobility technology, in its various forms, is estimated to be a £900 billion industry, according to the UK government’s Transport Catapult program.

Skift: So what’s in store for the future of beacons?

Wagenaar: The future of beacon technology is not clear yet, as uptake continues to grow, but we expect it to form part of wider intelligent mobility in terms of context i.e. where and when someone is with their device. Because the beacon is very specific to location, there are really many possibilities for its use. With a beacon-enabled app running on your smartphone, you could, for example, pick up an offer when visiting your favourite restaurant.

One interesting application is for contextualized social media interactions. Beacons allow pin-pointing of tweets, for example, to find out where they’re coming from and gauge the public sentiment at a particular point in their journey. By connecting APIs it could potentially allow us to manage journeys end-to-end. It would be helpful to know what the queues are like, for example. Beacons can help us draw more insight.

In a couple of years, we’ll likely see more technologies which will help contextualize social media interactions, which has great potential for firms and their marketing campaigns.

Say, for example, there was a Starbucks app which took advantage of beacon technology to replace the loyalty card. It would automatically know how many times you visited Starbucks for coffee and when you’re due a free cup.

Skift will be reporting on what else we learn about beacons and other revolutionary technology innovations at the SITA IT Summit in the coming days. Our inner-geek is very excited.

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