Landing in Shenzhen: The airport of the future

2020.08.19 By Linda Xu

In 2019, Shenzhen Airport's annual passenger throughput exceeded 50 million, with international passenger volume surpassing 5 million for the first time. But taking a place as one of the world's busiest airports is stretching the airport’s infrastructure. Chen Jinzu, general manager of Shenzhen Airport Group, explained the new technology and services that will keep planes on time and passengers happy.

Keeping it human is the smart move

WinWin: Tell us about your One Airport, One Dream vision.

Chen Jinzu: Our mission is to build airports that are safe, green, smart, and passenger-friendly, and to pioneer smart airport construction in China. We began looking at smart technologies back in 2017. And in September of that year, we signed an MOU with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) to join the New Experience in Travel and Technologies (NEXTT) initiative, making us the only airport in mainland China to do so. 

Since 2018, traveling through Shenzhen Airport has become more convenient, with fewer delays and a better experience due to smart technology based on imperceptible whole-process self-service. Passengers can use apps like WeChat’s applet to check in online. And along with Spring Airlines, we’re the first to provide open, shared self-service check-in kiosks across all domestic airlines, so passengers don’t have to waste time looking for a particular airline's kiosks. We’ve also launched smart services like self-service bag drop offs, baggage tracking via RFID, and self-service boarding.

Facial-recognition, appointment-based security checks, and full-process self-service security checks have made security smoother and friendlier. And as part of the first batch of pilot airports implementing the Civil Aviation Administration's Passenger Easy Security Check program, Shenzhen Airport has also launched an "Easy Security Check" platform, which allows passengers to book the smart security channel online.

Punctual flights are top of all passengers' wish lists, so Shenzhen Airport has strengthened precision management, the control of flights, and monitoring key phases through the digital transformation of each operational stage. In 2019, the average flight clearance delivery rate for the full year was close to 88 percent, ranking the airport among the top of China's major airports. Our outbound flight punctuality was sixth out of all major airports globally. 

We use an AI-powered system to automate and allocate terminal stands within one minute for the 1,000-plus flights arriving and departing from Shenzhen Airport every day, a task that originally took 4 hours to complete manually. Algorithms have further improved contact stand rates and passenger boarding bridge turnaround times, allowing millions of passengers to experience near-boarding gate travel at Shenzhen Airport every year, giving the convenience you expect from a smart airport.

We looked at transformation from the user point of view, so our focus was on using technology to optimize service operations, improve services with technological innovation, and create an experience-rich digital airport. This smart technology will help passengers experience Shenzhen's warmth.

Starting with a dream

Shenzhen Airport

WinWin: What challenges is Shenzhen Airport facing in the digital transformation process?

Chen: In the early planning stages of digital transformation and smart airport construction in 2017, we cast our gaze abroad and around China, but we found no use cases to learn from. So, we set out on our own path and found three main challenges:

Whether to transform or not? Specifically, we asked if we could unify understanding about integrating systems, services, processes, and the organization so that transformation was in fact viable.

The scope of transformation. Were we transforming a single service, architecture, or system, or transforming all services, processes, and systems?

How to achieve integration. How could we achieve the integration of infrastructure, service systems, and planning, construction, and O&M through digital transformation?

Problem 1: We had to work out IT organizational governance, which would require a coordinating department to implement the project. Two departments were possible – a group-level IT center responsible for group-level planning and system building and an IT company, a public company controlled by the group, which was responsible for O&M services and some software development. But, we were missing a department that could plan and carry out the project with a global view.

So, the group's management  decided to reform and integrate these two units into one business department that became the digital management center. The department then formed three sections delineated by service attributes: planning management, construction management, and operations management.

At the airport group level, planning management integrates the planning and aggregation of all requirements. After a plan is formulated, the construction management department organizes and manages the project build. It’s then over to the operations management department, which takes on the management planning, construction, and O&M systems.

After more than two years of trial and error, the current operation is very smooth. We’ve unified requirements, in turn enabling immediate response and good communications.

Problem 2: Tackling deployment, as our smart airport project involves three concurrent programs: the future airport, electrical installation for airport satellite terminals, and upgrading and transforming Terminal 3.

Each program contains hundreds of projects, so the wrong choice in terms of construction model would mean big headaches farther down the road. For partners, we insisted on companies with a proven track record of scale, quality, and competence. Huawei is an example of a company with scale, as it has technology, capability, and strategy. Second, the construction model was very important. Huawei is responsible for the total design, implementation, and oversight of our current implementation process for four main reasons: First, unifying the technical architecture and plan would be impossible if we were dealing with different vendors. Second, one-time bidding is simpler to manage and faster. Third, Huawei can coordinate technology and planning during implementation. Fourth, is turnkey project construction: Companies can coordinate and implement internal production and plans and in accordance with a blueprint. Packaging the programs together can boost construction efficiency and quality and help drive all projects forward.

Problem 3: Timing construction. Instead of charging ahead without a plan, we wanted to be more systematic. So we set up three stages, each with different goals: build the basic platform, build the applications on the platform, and realize full smartification.

Platform + ecosystem

WinWin: In 2019, the airport handled 1,100 flights and 170,000 passengers per day on average, making it one of the busiest airports in the world. How is technology helping to cope with this?

Chen: Building ICT infrastructure and an integration platform is a major, long-term undertaking where you don’t necessarily see the immediate value, but which has long-term benefits. We started envisaging the platform as a foundation, comprising an integrated platform and five general platforms. The integrated platform unifies and enables data exchange between different internal and external service systems. It can launch and recombine services to support various new service functions and processes. The five general platforms are big data, video services, converged communications, geographic information services, and IoT. Together, the six platforms support 40 application systems, which provide various services.

Shenzhen Airport and Huawei have also built a Future Airport Digital Platform based on the platform + ecosystem concept. The platform is based on Huawei's ICT infrastructure. The industry ecosystem, which we’ve built with our partners, features four service systems: big operations control, big security, big services, and big management. This in turn has enabled us to develop a new model comprising one map operations, one network security, and one line service.

Big operations control includes smart airport operations control and smart resource allocation; big security provides active smart security guarantees and collaborative emergency management; and big services cover personalized, automated, and fully connected services, as well as whole-process, visualized services.

We’ve digitally transformed each operational stage to create an airport operations control brain. At the center of big operations is air traffic control, which we transformed into the one map approach. Our Intelligent Operations Center (IOC) provides visual information services for ramp control, air traffic control towers, operations command, and security. It has helped us enable efficient multi-party coordination. In the area of aircraft stand allocation, we’ve implemented a smart stand allocation project, thanks to which the contact stand performance at Shenzhen Airport has increased dramatically.

Millions of passengers every year can board without taking a shuttle bus. By linking up the ground service system, assured phases acquisition system, A-CDM, and integrated system, we've slashed delays, exceeding an unprecedented air traffic clearance rate of 80 percent for 23 consecutive months as of July 2020.

For passenger flow, we developed the one line travel flow and transformed services. We carried out digital transformation on the complete process, both online and offline, including whole-process imperceptible self-service, with a self-service check-in ratio of 77 percent. We’re the first to implement facial-recognition self-service security verification, and we’ve achieved 100 percent coverage of self-service equipment at domestic boarding gates.

With facial-recognition boarding, it only takes 1 to 2 seconds for each passenger to pass the gate, doubling boarding efficiency. Shenzhen Airport's WeChat applet provides a full range of online services for passengers. With smart transportation precision push messages, we can collaborate with public transportation services and quickly respond to passengers with online smart services. Finally, the service management platform enables refined management.

WinWin: Safety is of course the civil aviation industry's top priority. How does Shenzhen Airport use tech and management platforms to respond to safety issues?

Chen: To cover every scenario, we carried out digital transformation of all zones in the airport and our front- and back-end systems, improving the precision of the big security system and implementing smarter methods. We built a dedicated modular security data room and large-capacity security cloud storage. We reconstructed more than 9,500 channels of HD video, implementing 90-day storage and a smart application for video surveillance across the entire airport. We deployed smart security management and control systems and built four secondary platforms in the terminal, airside, public, and cargo areas, which formed an overall security control system with unified supervision and hierarchical monitoring. Finally, a smart video analysis platform provides active prediction of potential hazards.

Protecting passengers with tech

WinWin: During the coronavirus pandemic, how has Shenzhen Airport optimized and upgraded its technology to maximize the safety of passengers?

Chen: During the outbreak, Shenzhen Airport has used smart technology to improve the accuracy and scientific-basis of pandemic prevention, so that passengers could have peace of mind when they travel. The airport is the city's first "line of defence" against the virus. When the pandemic started, we blocked all entry and exit. As the outbreak was brought under control in China but began to spread around the world, this required us to implement strict controls on inbound international flights and passengers. So controlling this became our top priority. 

Shenzhen Airport's IOC played a major role in our response. For one thing, it helped us build a special epidemic database, so we could analyze and investigate the status of outbreaks in relation to passengers and flights, international flight trends, international route trends, passengers with fever, and quarantined passengers. At the peak, the system provided smart real-time screening and tracking of more than 700 people a day.

Data was released uniformly through the IOC platform, providing unified real-time data to various offices and departments, including the airport epidemic prevention office, airport quarantine station, provincial/municipal health commission, municipal prevention and control leading group, municipal transportation authority, State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, and the airport emergency center. This facilitated the development of targeted epidemic prevention strategies.

The IOC's scenario-based video technology supported real-time dynamic monitoring of all stands and channels on the ramp, and flight and passenger screening, which allowed us to check all key flights, and not miss a single person or flight.

The airport is a gateway connecting the city and outside world, so stopping the spread of the virus was a top priority. We responded to requirements from the authorities for prevention and control. We installed infrared thermal imaging cameras at the entrances of the terminal building and ground transportation center (GTC), and at all jet bridges and in the arrivals area for full thermal imaging coverage. Normally staff use infrared thermometers to measure passengers’ temperatures, transferring those with a reading above 37.3 °C to the pandemic prevention department for re-examination and isolation. But since infrared thermometers only have an effective range of 3 to 5 cm, this necessitates close contact between passengers and airport staff, increasing the risk of infection. Also, multiple staff are needed to check passengers one by one and keep order, so it’s very inefficient.

We switched to binocular infrared thermal imaging cameras (with black-body correction) to detect the forehead temperatures of passengers entering and leaving the airport. Passengers passing through the camera are captured in under a second and the temperature of each passenger is displayed by color in real time on a computer screen for staff at the temperature checkpoint. The system notifies staff with audio and light warnings, so they can deal with any issues immediately, greatly increasing speed and efficiency. 

Airports generally check whether passengers are wearing masks at temperature checkpoints at entrances and exits, but to detect whether they are wearing masks in all other areas of the terminal, airports have to rely on video surveillance manned by staff. Due to fatigue and lapses in concentration, accuracy and efficiency are impossible to guarantee and the inspection cycle is very slow.

We deployed smart robots to patrol the airport's security zone in mid-March this year. The robots can inspect whether passengers and staff entering the airport security zone are wearing masks with an effective detection distance of 3 to 5 meters, with up to 98 percent mask detection accuracy. We can then carry out different measures depending on whether it’s a passenger or a worker.

If the offender is a passenger, a voice message will be played kindly reminding them to wear a mask. If it’s airport staff, a real-time image is taken and sent to the back-end along with location information. This is transmitted via 5G to the cloud where intelligent video analysis on edge computing devices enables backtracking and data analysis of historical data, which can be accurately linked to predetermined management and control strategies, so that personnel can then be notified in time to handle any transgression on-site, providing a more efficient and intelligent method of controlling the pandemic.

Soaring high on the wings of smart technology

WinWin: How did Shenzhen Airport and Huawei build a new IT and data governance system starting with the top-level design? And what technologies can we expect in the future?

Chen: For most passengers, so-called smart airports aren’t just about cutting-edge technologies. Any future smart electronic devices must provide more convenient services  that meet needs and boost experience. That’s the core purpose.

Shenzhen Airport will continue working with Huawei to extend the scope of passenger services to all touchpoints, including public areas and airside areas; integrate offline and online resources; and expand out to new scenarios, such as smart shopping, smart commerce, and VIP precision services. This is at the heart of creating a new passenger-centered service model.

Huawei has used algorithms to help Shenzhen Airport improve the efficiency of aircraft stand utilization. However, there are still problems like hitting airport capacity and guaranteed resources becoming strained. We will work with our partners to digitalize resource allocation rules and allocation experience, supported by strong computing power and algorithms. This will provide smart dispatch and management of the entire resource chain, with a focus on key guaranteed resources such as check-in islands, security channels, boarding gates, baggage carousels, and ground services.

New technologies like 5G and AI will completely revolutionize digital transformation of the entire civil aviation industry, including airports. We will see 5G-based aircraft taxiing guidance, driverless vehicles in the ramp area, unmanned aerial vehicles, and even onboard wireless communications for aviation. These technologies will integrate tech with civil aviation services and increase the speed and quality of digital transformation.

Alongside the rapid iteration of digital technology, we must maintain our strategic direction and roadmaps and turn plans into reality step by step. But, we must also keep an eye on development trends and explore new technologies to ensure we stay ahead of the curve and avoid a situation where the project falls behind and becomes immediately out of date once it's deployed. That’s why we will keep in mind the "One Airport, One Dream" concept.