Airport Connects With Travelers via WiFi & Beacons

Navigating an unfamiliar airport and finding food, shops and the right boarding gates can at times seem overwhelming for harried travelers. Fortunately, wireless technology and mobile apps are introducing new and better ways to ensure that flyers can quickly and easily get from point A to point B.

At Orlando International Airport, which handles 125,000 business and leisure travelers daily, an advanced WiFi network and mobile app have introduced new features and tools that help travelers and the airport take the flying experience to new heights.

“In many cases, it’s difficult to know what restaurants and shops exist or what counter to approach for assistance,” notes John Newsome, director of information technology for the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority (GOAA), the parent company for Orlando International Airport. “We want our travelers to have a very pleasant and stress-free experience as they arrive or depart through the airport.

“We wanted to introduce an experience that’s similar to using the GPS unit in your car, along with the convenience of a smartphone.”

To achieve that goal, GOAA turned to Aruba Networks to build out a robust wireless LAN infrastructure. The network went live in late 2014. (The airport introduced WiFi in 2006.) It was initially built on the 802.11 ab protocol with 1,000-plus access points scattered throughout the airport.

Upgrading Access Points, Installing Beacons

Since then, Orlando International has begun upgrading the access points to 802.11 ac to add better management and security features. The access points change their signal strength and channel to adapt to real-time events, such as a high concentration of users or equipment temporarily blocking an access point.

In addition, the airport has installed about 1,000 Bluetooth Low-Energy (BLE) beacons spaced about 25 meters apart. The network uses the beacons to deliver location-based services to travelers.

The mobile app detects the identification information from the beacons, uses this data to look up map coordinates for the nearest beacons in a table (registry) and then uses the measured signal strength from those beacons to calculate the position of the person using the device.

The free app, developed with Aruba partner Faith Group, delivers information about nearly 2,000 destination points in the airport: gates, TSA checkpoints, baggage claim areas, shops, restaurants, carts, restrooms and more.

“You select a destination, and the app displays a path with a blue line from where you are currently to that point,” Newsome explains. In addition, the airport has established a separate wireless VLAN to manage operational capabilities, including baggage reconciliation.

Already, GOAA has tallied more than 10,000 downloads of the app. As many as 14,000 devices connect to the network daily, and, at peak periods, upward of 3,000 devices use the wireless network. Newsome says the average app rating has topped 4.2.

The airport is now exploring limited use of the network and beacons to deliver promotions for shops and restaurants “We want it to be a benefit and not a nuisance,” he says.

There are also plans to tap into WiFi data about passenger traffic and flow patterns to better determine staffing levels at TSA checkpoints. “We have huge fluctuations in traffic because the second largest cruise port in the U.S. is located 40 miles away, and most European flights arrive within a three-hour period,” Newsome points out.

“We set out to develop an app that not only shows where you’re at, but also helps you find things and get where you need to go,” he concludes. “We are extremely pleased with the results and the way people are using the system.”