San Diego International Airport: A Watershed Moment for Indoor Location Technology

Airports are finally emerging as one of the hottest verticals for BLE beacons and indoor location technology, and San Diego International Airport created an innovative deployment that should act as a prototype for airports across the world on the multiple layers of utility these technologies can bring.

Airports provide the necessary drama and human emotions to make for popular programming on reality television. Airports are essentially a number of interconnected and dynamically changing parts. As a result, airports are particularly suited to indoor location technologies for a number of reasons:

  •  They are large environments where location and time are absolutely vital.
  • Passenger destinations in the airport change dynamically, creating a perfect opportunity for indoor location technologies to streamline the passenger experience.
  • Airport app downloads are expected to be much stronger than other verticals as there is an inherent utility in using them.  They improve the overall airport experience and offer the ability to easily explore one’s surroundings. Location clearly is a key element in enabling these features.
  • There is a significant retail opportunity in airports with a variety of shops, restaurants, and experiences for passengers to discover.

Of course, these programs do not merely focus on passengers. Airports can be considered huge distribution hubs where there is movement of passengers, luggage, cargo, airlines, and staff. There is a big opportunity to optimize that movement through Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) processes, with location a central element.  

  • Airlines can benefit by creating their own apps and user experiences while also helping to enhance on-time performance and improve customer service, using location.
  • Airport technical staff can identify and respond to issues more efficiently.
  • Airport services, such as cleaning, can be managed far more effectively.

One of the biggest problems today is that initial rollouts can be expensive.  With so many stakeholders involved it can be difficult to determine who should own and control the network and how best to let other entities gain access without creating any security issues in such a sensitive environment.

The Airport App of the Future

ABI Research believes that Spark Compass, in conjunction with Samsung, Gimbal, and others, have created one of the most complete deployments to date at San Diego International Airport– going beyond customer engagement and integrating luggage tracking and staff management tools via wearables.

San Diego International Airport is about to go live with a customer-facing app that utilizes beacons, Wi-Fi, and Apple’s yet to be officially announced handset-based indoor location technology. Beacons have been installed on both sides of the security area with Spark Compass’s multi-tenant platform that controls CMS, analytics, location detection, and more. The consumer-facing app called “Away You Go” has standard features like an indoor “I am here” blue dot navigation and wayfinding.  Covering the complete traveler journey, it starts at home with direction and time of travel to travel to the airport. Once at the airport, it is integrated with flight and gate info, taxi wait times, provides gate change updates, etc.  Information is received on the app at the same time as it is displayed in the airport. The overall effect is an app that has clear utility for the customer, while also helping to improve the overall performance of the airport. 

Spark also created BLE beacon-enabled “Go Tags” that the airport will distribute to tens of thousands of passengers to provide a luggage verification/alert system, which is tied into the app. When customers arrive at their destination they will be notified when their bag is available for collection.

What is particularly interesting about this offering is that it is a multi-tenant platform. As a result, it also enables airlines to integrate with the beacon infrastructure and services with their own-brand app. The platform also works with the retail side of the airport, integrating concessionaires, mobile ordering mobile pay, and providing utility to the tenants at the airport.

Finally, the infrastructure is also used by the airport operators themselves. Spark Compass is equipping key members of staff with Samsung wearables so that when a problem occurs, they can simply and quickly create a notification from the wearable that is sent to the Spark Compass platform.  It then detects which team member is closest and  sends a fix it ticket alert to the correct member of staff.  A notification is sent that the job has been correctly assigned, and another when the job is completed.

Most deployments thus far in airports have focused on one aspect – whether that be automatic check-ins, gate navigation, airline own-branded apps, etc. This is the first deployment that combines most of these use cases in one app while also providing the flexibility for multiple entities to take advantage of the system.

Looking more broadly, Spark Compass also has deployments at the San Diego Convention Center as well as in the downtown area. We can see the possibility for the app to enhance a passenger’s visit, even after they leave the airport.


Apple's Indoor Location Technology

From a location point of view, Apple’s handset-based indoor location technology has been a pretty badly kept secret. But it has been surprising just how long it has taken for this to crop up in a customer-facing app. We have seen just how impactful an Apple announcement can be with iBeacon, and this could help to take the market to the next level.

Looking at Apple’s solution in depth, this is first and foremost a mapping tool that leverages Wi-Fi to create accurate indoor maps including shops and gates.  It also enables “blue dot” positioning, which allows the user to discover what is nearby, and how to find the best route to a chosen destination. The app automatically extends outdoors to support services around parking, taxis, and navigation to/from the airport.  This isn’t quite the fancy turn-by-turn indoor solution with bells and whistels that ABI Research expected from Apple, but it is still a very important step forward. We can expect Apple’s overall indoor location offering to expand over time, but it has gone to great pains to ensure that what it offers can support a good user experience.


So if nothing else this could be the first nail in the coffin for people watching television programs about airports (future generations will judge us harshly). And hey, could this be the first article ever written about beacons and indoor location that doesn’t mention the” A” word?  (“A” as in “advertising.”  Oops, I guess I just mentioned it!)