Heathrow's Mobile Display Solutions Provide Dynamic Messaging in Terminals


Need for Timely Information

Research shows that passengers feel most relaxed when they are informed, which is why signage, fixed and digital, is heavily used in airport terminal design. Yet there are times when one has to operate outside business-as-usual processes, where contingency situations may require a temporary change or redirection for passengers. This is difficult to achieve within a built environment, one that is set up for processing people quickly, and one not flexible enough to give passengers a multitude of different instructions.

So in early 2013, during a period of snowfall at Heathrow, flights were delayed so we deployed our usual temporary signage to keep passengers informed. In Terminal 5, these would be large printed A0 sheets of paper pinned to boards within the terminals. While informative, they were slow to produce especially as a situation may be unfolding, and could not be updated easily. And since they had to be pinned to something, we were limited as to where we can place them.

This is how the idea of a mobile dynamic messaging system was born: a large, prominent screen that can be mobilised quickly into key areas of the terminal and updated dynamically from one central location (as a situation unfolds). Since nothing like that existed, the idea was handed to the Heathrow Innovation team to look at further.

First of Type

The innovation team contacted two suppliers for the screen infrastructure, and another that specialises in portable, battery-powered technology. For the messaging system to be truly mobile, it would need battery power to operate anywhere around an airport terminal.

A first-of-type unit was contracted to prove that the concept could work and to win support from airport colleagues and critically our airlines (whose passengers this product would ultimately support). The first-of-type also helped us understand health and safety issues, how we can move the units around a terminal across the airport and to get passenger feedback as to how useful the messaging is.

We called the finished product a Mobile Display Unit (MDU). The unit would support a screen and PC display that can be electrically raised to more than 3 metres in height for greater prominence. The embedded PC would connect via our Wi-Fi network to a Content Management System (CMS) where a pre-prepared list of screens can be assigned. When lowered to 1.8 metres, the MDU can easily be moved into a lift or vehicle for transportation.

Then we built our own CMS so we can quickly change the content. The CMS is accessed via a website where we can change content via a mobile device like an iPad. When finished, we demonstrated the MDU to colleagues in T5, the airlines and our regulator.


Stability and Battery Life

Equipped with the feedback, the supplier devised a second version that improved key areas of the first-of-type. These included greater stability (by widening the base and adding two additional batteries as ballast) making the MDU heavier. Not only did this make it more stable, but the extra batteries improved the operational life of the screen from around 14 hours to more than 30 hours.

Also, the screen size was enlarged to NEC's 55” version and the base was surrounded in thicker stainless steel, to mitigate any crash or kick damage. Furthermore, a lockable handle was added for greater manoeuvrability (which retracts the front wheels when it is stowed, further stabilising the MDU).

Trial Phase

Version 3 formed the final prototype. After specifying a few small changes, we took delivery of the first 14 units for Terminal 5 in September 2015. In the meantime, we’d also commissioned an all new, cloud-based CMS which had the following features:

  • Screen animation, where single messages can be tied together and changed at fixed intervals;
  • Timers for switching content on and off;
  • Diagnostic reports, such as if the MDU is connected to Wi-Fi and, critically, its current battery level.

Heathrow mobile display solution

A further key change was splitting the operation deployment of the MDU and the CMS. The deployment is now controlled via an Android app on a tablet or phone that uses Bluetooth to securely connect to the MDU. This controls functions such as power up, unlocking the handle to mobilise it, raising and lowering the screen for portability and opening up diagnostic areas on the MDU itself. The content can be managed centrally via the CMS where contingency messaging can be tactically coordinated across a terminal or an airport.

Heathrow mobile display solutions


Since the fall of 2015, we’ve been commissioning the units. This involved working with operational colleagues in T5 to fully adopt the MDUs and train colleagues on how to deploy them. The work included detailed planning, depending on the type of contingency, so the MDUs may be deployed to different locations. With more than 30 hours per unit, an operational day is easily covered, but procedures need to be in place to swap over MDUs if they are needed for two or more days.

We are pleased with the results and have entered a pilot phase with 8 MDUs running permanently in the landslide check-in areas of T5, while separately a larger plan is being put together to deliver more units for other Heathrow terminals.

Note from Editor: This blog post is the last before the summer break, so I wish you all a great summer holiday. We will be back with a new post in September!

 other images of display via Heathrow

How Heathrow Promotes Innovative Technology

This is the 3rd part of a new series by Heathrow Airport’s innovation team. Part 1 was How Heathrow Innovates and part 2 How Heathrow Launched an Easter App. It’s a good idea to read both to best understand how we work when it comes to technology innovation. Today, we’ll look at a process we internally call showcase which we used to launch a new digital game. This method is also used to collect ideas that may not arise from a challenge-gathering team session.  

What is a Showcase?

In our team, we avoid what we call ‘tech push’. This is when you find a new technology and try and sidestep it into the business. Instead, we use technology as a solution to a business challenge and then think about the right technology. Sometimes when the area is completely new, we introduce it to colleagues using a showcase.

Not only does this provide a great way of showing innovative technology to colleagues, but it also provides a great opportunity for us to network within the business and to speak with suppliers about their technology and learn more about a particular area.

Devices Showcase

The devices presented were ones that were being trialed: touch screens, laptops, tablets, ruggedized devices

Showcase Format

The Innovation Team likes to do a few showcase presentations per year. The most recent was around new technology for kiosks, large format ‘glasses-less’ 3D screens and wearable technology. Today, I’ll focus on the most recent one we had which was on wearables.


Glassesless 3D screens that were to go into trial to aid security compliance

The event is held in Heathrow’s head office, the Compass Centre. It’s an ideal spot as many employees are either based there, or are likely to visit the Centre as it is the operation training suite. Because of this, we get a large number of visitors. For example, the ‘wearables’ event had over 2000 staff members attend over a 3 day period.

Right now, wearable technology is a trend that is gaining traction with consumers, as well as enterprise. Some well-known trials have occurred in the aviation industry using wearables – with the most well-known being the Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Google Glass trial at Heathrow Terminal 3.

The wearables showcase was a hands-on style event. We did this by approaching our suppliers of wearable devices, and we spoke to new suppliers at trade events and through LinkedIn asking them to loan us equipment for the event.

As a result, we had around 10 different products, from 2 distinct categories of wearable: wrist worn and head worn. Then, we arranged to have the equipment on display and ensured that the stand was attended to throughout the day with people who could talk it through and engage with Heathrow staff.

When doing an internal event like this, the aim is to get feedback from staff on how they might use that technology. With this approach, we can draw out any potential business challenges that the technology might solve. In addition, we see how staff see themselves use the technology as presented.

To incentivise staff to take time out to come and see what is on show, we offer a competition prize - usually with the same question: ‘how would this technology change how you work at Heathrow?’

For the wearables event, we had in excess of 100 ideas come in, the winner of which (as judged by the Innovation Steering Group (see blog post 1)) won a Samsung Galaxy Gear S smart watch. This was one of the products on display.


Wearables (virtual reality, wrist worn, head worn)

Winning Wearable Idea

The winning idea came from a member of the Winter Resilience Team, who are part of Airside Operations. Their business challenge was around situational awareness on the airfield - where stand clearance teams are during snow events, and efficiently we can manage them during times of snow. The current system involves using the radio system, the trial would be looking at using smart watches as a hands free notification system to send updates and actions to teams out on the airfield. The watch also lets the Winter Resilience team report back on the status of their current activity.

This innovation was recently trialled during a summer snow practice drill day on the airfield and with great success. As a result, we will be pursuing this concept further within the wider Heathrow IT team.  

How to Make the Event a Success

To run a successful event, do the following:

  • Relevancy - A technology area might be new and exciting, but completely irrelevant to your business. We chose wearables because of several trials we had seen already in wearables, and we were noticing a push for more enterprise mobility using wearables in the wider sense.
  • Have it in the Right Place – you need to position yourself in an area with high footfall to drive engagement. So, use a space in your office where people congregate. The space we used had a coffee outlet, casual meeting space and lift cores in a wide open space. This meant plenty of people were waiting around for meetings.
  • Advertise in Advance– Tell people about it in your company’s newsletter or email run and advertise what people will see and get out of it. The event was advertised on our Intranet and through the departmental email system.
  • Run a Contest – It doesn’t have to be much, but if you want to get people to write down ideas, they will want to feel rewarded in some way and incentivised to give up a little bit of their time and thoughts.
  • Make it Popular with Key StakeholdersSpread invites throughout the day for key people you want to attend, perhaps people you have had conversations about the technology before.
  • Ensure Your Stand Constantly has a Team Member in Attendance– Empty stands don’t generate ideas, and having engaging team members there can help you get insights into a particular business area.
  • Gather Challenges – We’ve tried both paper submissions and online survey tools. Some people prefer to write their ideas out, while others want to think about it more and enter these from their desks online.
  • Interactive – Let people be hands on with the technology, and show them examples of its benefits. A lot of work has to go into creating demo content so people can have a good idea of how the technology might work. Suppliers helped to make this really useful.  
  • Right Time and Length – Consider the best opportunity to run the showcase. Be careful not to choose days that are stressful for different departments (e.g. end of month) or school holidays when your audience might be more limited. Consider the number of days you run it for – 2 or 3 days is ideal.
  • Follow Up – make sure you go back to people who you speak with and those who contribute ideas. We triaged some of the best ideas that were most relevant to the business and spoke to those people individually. The remainder we emailed to personally thank them for their contribution

Summing things up, these types of events are a great way to introduce colleagues to new technology and to engage with many members of staff in a relatively short time.

Also, they are superb opportunities to introduce one’s self and break into teams that one had previously struggled to engage with.

As you can see, planning and follow up are the most time consuming parts of the event. But if you plan it well, it provides great insights into the business, so it is well worth it!

Images: by Robin Gissing.

How Heathrow Launched an Easter Mobile App

This post is part 2 in a new series by the Heathrow Airport Innovation Team. In the previous post, Richard introduced the Heathrow innovation process; how we gather business challenges, score and prioritise them for trial projects. Today, we share a successful initiative that combines several smaller business challenges with innovative technology to produce a fully fledged passenger-facing, custom-made mobile app. The Easter Treasure Trail app enables families to play an interactive game using iBeacons. It uses location-based and context-aware services that were tested and launched in Heathrow Terminal 2.

Combining Challenge with Research

After discussions with business units across Heathrow, we collected several small challenges that individually scored low in our challenge scoring method. These were:

  • Family groups are small but a significant percentage of our passenger numbers overall, and become an important part of the passenger make-up during holiday periods. How do we use technology to help make family time at the airport more enjoyable?

  • Terminal 2 is the newest Heathrow terminal and many passengers haven’t flown through it before. How can we provide a subtle way to improve passenger knowledge of the terminal layout?

  • How can we encourage passengers to walk past more of the retail outlets, before they sit down to wait for their flight?

  • How can we point out great Heathrow landmarks in an interesting way?

  • How can we influence the redemption rate of retail offers by making these offers specific to the passengers’ location and context?

Also, we were interested in using Bluetooth beacons to provide location-based services indoors. So we decided to develop a treasure hunt mobile application for our family passengers.

By providing clues to lead passengers around the departure lounge, we’d provide a fun way to address the challenges here mentioned and at the same time learn about deploying and operating beacons in an airport environment.

Build code

Build code

Agile App Development and Honing the MVP

As with all app projects, we defined the minimum set of features and functionality that will deliver the experience we are looking for – the Minimum Viable Product (MVP). To do this, we worked with a development partner to define the user personas, critical functionality, user experience (UX) and design language. This was developed in short series of workshops over two weeks, using the agile methodology.

For the app, we created 2 user personas;

Persona 1 A British family consisting of 1 parent (assuming the other parent is with cases, or in a retail environment) with 1 child aged 8 years. The family are moderately well off, and are flying to North America to visit extended family. This persona was considered our primary user.

Persona 2 A female, aged around 30, working in a professional role, and going abroad on business. She has an interest in technology, and uses an iPhone for business and for her personal life.

Before we started the trial, we thought we’d get a considerable amount of interest from passengers fitting persona 2. And that they may be more aware of the game and with more time to spend. But in reality, we found that persona 1 made up the highest proportion of players; but were predominantly non-British nationals.

When we were defining the MVP, there was another key component to be specified and that was the route itself. We had taken the decision to fix this at the point of beacon installation, given the time and complexity involved in deploying the beacons in an airport environment.

So we started trialling the route intensively in the beginning, holding the beacons and checking the received signal strength as we walked the route, as well as checking the feasibility of potential installation locations against the goals of including specific waypoints such as a post box or ‘selfie-moment’ in the route. We didn’t have scope to install a matrix of beacons with which we could use trilateration for user positioning, so we measured the proximity to specific beacons as the trigger for meeting the journey waypoints. Our aim was to install beacons in discreet locations; given the height of the ceilings and positioning of furniture, the top of flight information screens or advertising pillars turned out to be the most useful beacon sites.

T2 interactive map

T2 interactive map

Launching and Testing MVP

Adopting an agile, iterative development process meant that we were able to deliver the first functioning app within 3 weeks. At this stage, we deliberately avoided any interaction with other teams that might have ‘slowed us down’. For example, we did not consult with Brand or PR – as the MVP product was for internal testing only and not to be shared externally at this stage.

The key driver for developing the MVP was to gain business buy-in to the user experience and its success in overcoming the business challenges we identified at the start. This meant that we could illustrate some of the user experience through suggestion, rather than going through the process of development for all of the features.

For example, the feature of posting a selfie to twitter simply showed a mockup of the results rather than actually posting to twitter. This allowed us to simplify the implementation, to paint the picture of what we were trying to achieve and allowed our stakeholders to visualise the experience.

Then we moved into the app testing phase, inviting a wide range of Heathrow staff to trial it and give feedback. It is at this point that we brought in the Brand and PR teams to provide direction for a successful second iteration.

Second Iteration

Once the proof of concept piece MVP app was complete, and our Innovation Steering Group (ISG) approved a real version, we set to work on completing the second iteration. So we removed faked content and processes, and created a final product which could be deployed over Easter.

At the start of the second iteration, we wanted to ensure that the goal was clearly understood: to polish the app sufficiently so that we could launch it publicly within a limited environment to get ‘real’ user feedback and analytics.

To do this, we restricted development to iOS only and just tested it (and not Android), and for one terminal only, Terminal 2. In addition, the Treasure Trail (as it was eventually named) would end on a specific date. The latter is especially key for us in the Innovation team; we exist to facilitate trials to understand their impact and to describe a business case for a fuller deployment, rather than a half-hearted attempt.  However, we did take the opportunity to write the app in a modular way to allow any future development to build on the work already done.

The second iteration took about 1 month, including development time and testing various versions of iOS and the array of compatible devices, all of which had slightly different Bluetooth performance in the field.

It was an interesting learning experience, and a direct result of us choosing beacon proximity by received signal strength as a trigger, as each device type needed a slightly different configuration to work in the same way. This involved quite a bit of calibration work on our part, walking the route dozens of times (and many 1000s of steps on our wearable fitness trackers!) to finesse the experience.


As part of the work to design the second iteration, we sought the advice of our Branding team, who helped us alongside our original UX/UI (user interface) developer to create the colourful yet on-brand version of the application that went live. We had elements of Easter (bunnies) mixed with verdant fields of the British Isles and a traditional ‘Sandcastle’ type castle peeking over a hill. This background was combined with our distinct purple branding to achieve the final result (pictured).

Once ready, this version was showcased to various stakeholders, live in the terminal for the first time – to help get buy in from these teams. Both groups loved the application and worked tirelessly across the Easter period to promote it and help passengers use it.

Timing was critical to this project, with Easter being an immovable date. As with all App Store releases, we were beholden to the Apple approval process. Actually, we found the App Store approval timescales to fit the 2-week turnaround generally experienced by other developers.

Thereafter, we developed advertising for the app via Heathrow’s social media channels, through terminal leafleting and physical signage to let passengers know where the game began and what it involved.

Furthermore, we did a bit of advertising through WiFi welcome screens. The physical signage in the terminal directly corresponded with an increase in the amount of people playing the game, so all this proved really valuable in driving awareness and use of the app.



What Did We Learn?

With the Easter period now over, we are now collecting the data and writing the final report. This experience has given us the opportunity to learn a number of lessons, which we can summarise below:

User Experience For the first iteration, focus on the user experience. Provide the minimum functionality that gives the optimum user experience.

Stakeholders Bring in a wide range of stakeholders and build in their views as soon as possible.

Lead Time Work out the long lead-time items – don't forget to involve Brand, PR and Advertising teams early (if applicable) to understand the timeframes they need too.

Deadline A hard deadline focuses the mind on keeping to a tight scope.

Interest People will turn on Bluetooth if they've got a strong enough reason to do so.

Deployment Beacon deployment is all about the use cases. In this case, the installation was specific to the Treasure Trail, so we chose to work in proximity mode with individual beacons. That might not have been the best solution in a different beacon environment.

Permissions Consider radio interference and get permission before you install.

Adults Adults like to play too – this kind of game isn't just for children.

Value Passengers really liked that we weren't just taking them around the terminal for no reason, but showing them sights and facilities that they might otherwise not know about (viewing Concorde, children's play areas, water fountains, quiet areas and baby change facilities etc.).

Reward People also really appreciated the surprise reward of a Heathrow branded chocolate egg on completion.

In conclusion, the Easter Treasure Trail project was an opportunity to use the agile approach to deliver a mobile app in a very short time. We launched an app experience that passengers enjoyed, in a short timescale, with a limited budget and which addressed real business challenges in Terminal 2.

In ‘doing agile’, we gained valuable experience, increased our knowledge of working with beacons and adapted our app development approach to take all of this learning on board. The upcoming app projects are already realising the benefit from the work we started with the Easter Treasure Trail app. It is an ongoing process to making every journey better for Heathrow passengers.


Robin Gissing, a technology architect at Heathrow co-authored this post. His background is in academia and emerging technology having previously worked as a Technologist and Technology Enhanced Learning Advisor in the Higher Education sector. There Robin co-chaired a number of regional and national user groups and spearheaded first of type innovative learning experiences to students across the UK.

ResourcesEaster at HeathrowHeathrow Airport Terminal MapsThe Lean StartupGartner: CIOs need to focus on supporting mobile, context-aware services, analyticsWhat you need to know about using Bluetooth beaconsBeacons, Bluetooth & Mobile: The Future of Context Marketing

Photo credit: MVP diagram from; T2 map via Heathrow's website; and Easter app image via Heathrow's innovation team.

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