How Heathrow Airport Clears Emerging Tech for Take-Off

By Scott Kirsner |  August 18, 2014

July was the busiest month ever at London’s Heathrow Airport: almost seven million travelers arrived and departed Europe’s travel hub. And one of the people responsible for making sure Heathrow runs smoothly — and constantly improves upon the passenger experience — is Richard Harding, the Head of IT Strategy and Innovation.

Harding says that in late 2012, he was asked by Heathrow’s Chief Technology Officer set up an innovation function. One big goal: to evaluate and test emerging technologies. “Heathrow has a rich history of innovation,” he says. “But we tend to do very large engineering innovation, and we felt we were missing out on digital and emerging technologies. We’re world-class at laying concrete and building terminals, but with all of governance and regulatory environment being based on a five-year planning cycle, innovation needed a different approach.”

Here’s how Harding lays out the mission and goals for the four-person innovation team at Heathrow:

  • “We take off or land a plane every 45 seconds and our runway usage is over 98 percent. That’s why there is so much opportunity to be innovative here — we have to operate within this incredible capacity constraint.”
  • “Our primary focus is how can we either increase operational efficiency or reduce costs for the operation.”
  • “To give ourselves the best possible chance of success, we created an Innovation Steering Group with other executive members, including the Director of Commercial, Director of Operational Improvement, Director of Airport Communications, and Chief Information Officer, so we’ve got good air support for all of our initiatives.”
  • “We collect evidence, look for vendors, and do research that contributes to a well-formed business case. One example is using closed-circuit cameras to understand crowd dynamics. If our CCTV camera can see a check-in area, can we use that video to understand when people have stopped moving and why, or to see people moving in unusual directions? We found some vendors and did some rapid trials. Sometimes, we develop projects where we get two or three vendors to work together in an open innovation approach.”
  • “Another example of how we work would be our Mobile Display Units. In a situation when there are lots of delayed flights, like adverse weather conditions, the check-in halls become severely congested. And we want to communicate with passengers — for example, ‘Go here if you want to get food or drink vouchers,’ or ‘To rebook, go to Zone F.’ It used to be scribbled messages on a whiteboard, but that wasn’t always effective. When we approached the business for areas where innovation could help, this was identified as one area for improvement. We helped them to identify what they were looking for, which was a screen that could be connected to our network using wifi, run off a battery, operate for 18 hours, and be placed anywhere. Pretty much everything we saw needed to be plugged in for power. But eventually, we found a company here in the UK producing portable devices for hospitals, Parity Medical. Over the course of a few months, we worked with them to develop a specific ‘Heathrow’ solution.” (See photo at right.)
  • “Initially, we focused on quick wins. But we’re now also looking at some of the bigger challenges. We are limited to the number of runways we have, and the times we can operate, due to the noise impact. So we’re starting to connect with UK universities and talk about technologies that could impact noise. Could we fire a noise cannon at planes, or somehow change the noise profile over houses? Those are ‘bigger R’ research pieces. Heathrow is effectively a mini-city, with two fire stations, a police station, HVAC, sewage, a private road network, and high-value shopping malls. So we’re looking at opportunities around smart cities, and ways to benefit Heathrow by becoming a proving ground for new technologies, services, and companies.”
  • “A part of our job is being out there and talking at conferences, spreading the message that Heathrow is open to innovation. We’ve also run internal innovation challenges. We’ve done two so far, focused on improving the passenger experience or operating the airport more efficiently. Both were designed to get a high volume of ideas contributed. The winning idea back in 2012 involved collecting the kinetic energy from people’s footsteps — we’ve got 72 million people wandering around — and putting it to good use. We found a company in the UK called Pavegen, and we currently have their tiles on the floor and a display on the wall. Right now, it’s just enough power to illuminate some LED lights, but it’s a way to explore whether people will walk on these tiles or not, and a future version of the technology might provide enough energy to do something environmentally significant.”
  • “In many ways, certainly around safety and security, Heathrow should be conservative and risk-averse. But in other areas, like the digital space, we should be more embracing of risk, and understanding of how to balance risk and reward. And I think we’re making great progress toward that.”

For more on Heathrow’s innovation program, see their briefing presentation in our Resource Center.