Travel tracker

As airports begin to integrate new security measures such as RFID to track people and luggage, they will need a wireless network capable of dealing with vast amounts of information


As airports begin to integrate new security measures such as Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) to track people and luggage, they will need a wireless network capable of dealing with vast amounts of information.

Such a system is set to be installed and trialled at Heathrow’s terminal five, where an ‘intelligent gate’ will demonstrate, among other things, accurate passenger position estimation through active and passive RFID and radio over fibre (RoF) where the RFID is part of the boarding pass and/or passport.

Predictions suggest a terminal-wide network would have to support 10 million sources of information, from individual tracking units for passengers and staff to technology such as biometric gates. It is believed the system will have to deal with a peak data rate of 100Gbit/s as it tracks people, luggage, aircraft and all the information generated by those sources.

Researchers from the universities of Leeds, Cambridge and University College London have teamed up with 10 companies on The INtelligent Airport (TINA) project.

This aims to create a network that can handle the huge data load and vast changes in traffic experienced every few minutes in a large, busy airport. The system will have to collect information from various systems and be able to disseminate information between them.

‘We are looking at how it can be done in an efficient way,’ said Prof Jaafar Elmirghani of Leeds University, principal investigator of the project. ‘The people responsible want a more efficient system which provides better security.

‘It will link a number of separate systems including wireless biometrics and RFID, which could be put into boarding passes and will soon be put in passports. Passengers can be processed a lot faster and tags could be used to track luggage so it can be handled in a more efficient way — tracked from arrival to being put on a plane.’

Another challenge for such as network will be sudden surges of information experienced in airports, followed by relative lulls.

‘One of the aims is to have an intelligent airport system that can learn about its environment and users and adapt to their needs,’ added Elmirghani. ‘It will have to be self-organising. In airports you can have a high load of information as passengers go through a gate and then nothing. You have hot-spots of information and the infrastructure needs to adapt to that, for example by diverting the wireless network resources dynamically to hot spots.

‘The system will use a radio-over-fibre distribution network with a distributed antenna system creating a unified structure. We are looking at passive kinds of radio frequency distribution. This will allow the basic systems of the infrastructure to be easily upgraded and updated. We are going to put a demonstrator system into the new Heathrow terminal five to see how the system works.’

The ‘intelligent gate’ demonstrator could test the combined viability of RoF distributed antenna systems; bandwidth provision on demand; self-organising network infrastructures; protocols for resilience and simultaneous access to a large number of devices, among other features.

Many high-profile companies are involved in the project, including Motorola, which is involved with the wireless technology, Ericsson, which will contribute complex communication design and BAA, which can provide expertise in airport operations. The other companies involved are: Laing O’Rourke; Red-M; Boeing; Tyco; Innovision; Zinwave; and Arup.

‘It’s been fantastic getting all these companies together,’ said Elmirghani. ‘You would think it would be very difficult or time consuming but they have been very supportive and provided a lot of input.’

The integration of technology such as RFID has huge implications for security and the efficiency of airports, although there are concerns that this constant monitoring of people represents a loss of freedom. Campaign group Liberty has already voiced concerns over the use of RFID in shops and called for a framework of Fair Information Packages for data collected by the technology.

‘People will probably have issues with the technology but you have to weigh the benefits with any down sides,’ added Elmirghani. ‘This kind of information is already available if you have a mobile phone. Your position can be triangulated but that information hasn’t been available to airports. Overall there can be more benefits than some of the losses.’