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

A-CDM Concept Elements: Getting Linked In With ATC

Airport CDM

This is part 3 of a 6-part series on European Airport Collaborative Decision Making, in which we explore 2 out of 6 concept elements that constitute the implementation of an A-CDM project. In part 2, we looked at the data sharing efforts to be undertaken, the ‘milestone approach’ and the collaborative pre-departure sequence.

In this episode, we’ll continue exploring the European collaborative decision making implementation details, leading to A-CDM implementation. Last time, we ended with the variable taxi time element as one of the elements that constitute the collaborative pre-departure sequence. Next in line is perhaps the most challenging step of them all… 

Adverse Conditions Management

Airport Collaborative Decision Making Photo: AP / Virginia Mayo

Although ‘adverse conditions’ cover all possible events that may put a strain on regular airport operations, be it a baggage belt breakdown, a raging thunderstorm overhead or an industrial action, focus tends to be on managing the aircraft, stand, taxi- and runway de-icing or de-snowing process. Frankly, heavy winter conditions rapidly turn Western and Southern European airports in chaotic resorts, and the least we want to do is to insert some organisation in that chaos.

Recently, Eurocontrol published the de-icing milestones -I’ll spare you the set of acronyms that came with it- which allow an airport and its de-icing agents to keep track of the progress of the operations, to try to put some predictability in the whole set-up. Set-ups which vary to a very large extent between airports, ranging from centralized, airport-steered de-icing pads close to the runway holding points (ideal!) to combinations of spread on-stand/remote de-icing by 2 or more independently operating de-icing agents (auch!).

In either way, it’s up to the airport to get its act together during adverse circumstances and  be persistent in running its operations in a collaborative way with its stakeholders and keeping the community in the loop. You would be surprised how quick people forget they’re working on an A-CDM airport when the going gets tough…

Almost There: E-DPI, T-DPI-t, T-DPI-s, A-DPI, C-DPI…

Remember the target off-blocks time (TOBT)/target start-up approval time (TSAT) concept, which enables the airport to collaboratively build an aircraft start-up order through data shared by its stakeholders; the time has come to kick functionality in to life that uploads this data into Eurocontrol’s Enhanced Tactical Flow Management System (ETFMS, here we go again…). We do this via a set of structured messages called DPI’s: departure planning information messages. Depending on the course of events during a flight’s turn-around at the airport and/or the time left to departure, a different kind of DPI is transmitted by local Air Traffic Control at the airport. Data elements in the DPI’s vary slightly from type to type, but it is the aim to provide a quality Target Take-Off Time (TTOT), which is getting more correct when the actual departure time approaches.


Photo: FUM/DPI exchange (courtesy of Eurocontrol)

ETFMS likes our DPI’s, and gives us something in return: the flight update messages (FUM), providing a continuous flow of operational data on inbound flights, for intra-Europe flights even if the aircraft is still sitting on the ramp at the airport of origin.  Airport operators are particularly interested in the Estimated Landing Times (ELDT) out of those FUM’s, because they form the basis for a good first departure estimation.

Once DPI transmission is established, call yourself an A-CDM airport. You successfully managed to deploy an up-and-running data sharing platform and provided access for the whole airport community. You have a D-MAN in place to master your pre-departure sequence. You’ve built trust among your airport partners and they accept 3rd party data in order to fine tune their operations and the estimation of the core target times. You have transparent procedures in place to tackle predicted and unforeseen capacity drops, and you channel all of the above in DPI. Congratulations, and I’m not being sarcastic this time.

In the next episode, we’ll take a closer look at the road map of an actual implementation, and how Brussels Airport managed to roll out full A-CDM as Europe’s second.

This article is part 3 in a series of 6 on European Airport Collaborative Decision Making.

Additional Resources www.euro-cdm.org

photo credit: APilotsEye