United Kingdom

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 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 DeutscheStartups.de; T2 map via Heathrow's website; and Easter app image via Heathrow's innovation team.

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This is How Heathrow Airport Innovates

Editor’s note: We are excited to bring you a new series featuring insights from Heathrow Airport exclusively on New Airport Insider. Today’s post introduces Heathrow's internal process and upcoming ones will cover projects delivered by the innovation team. In this new series by Heathrow Airport’s IT Innovation team, we will share with you how we operate and provide context as to why Heathrow Airport Holdings (HAL) formed an Airport IT Innovation team. Also, introduce our mission, goals and detail processes and practices. The posts will be written by different members of the Innovation department and we will go into detail about some of the initiatives we have been working on.


Heathrow needs no introduction. It handles 73 million passengers per year and runs at 99% capacity across 2 runways. Our groups’ mission is to “make every journey better” to become a world class airport. To achieve this, we continually leverage new and innovative approaches to ensure our operation delivers exceptionally high levels of passenger experiences.

How It Started

Since we already delivered large-scale engineering projects, from building award-winning terminals to re-laying the runways, our planning and programme governance practices were already geared around delivery of large scale projects. And in 2012, our Chief Information Officer (CIO) Neil Clark made the decision to develop an innovation capability that would work closely with the business to understand and deliver solutions more effectively.

Starting with a small group of 3, the first challenge was to build support across the entire organisation. This was done through delivering smaller scale wins to build momentum and immediately demonstrate the team’s benefits.

Initially, the goals were to:

  • Drive effective business case development through trialling and testing initiatives to provide the evidence to prove the business benefit.
  • Engage with colleagues and partners and provide an environment to enable them to innovate
  • Bring “lean” and “art of the possible” thinking to all business challenges
  • Be able to identify, embrace and provide potential solutions based on new and emerging technologies

In the first months, we gave careful consideration as to how to create the “right” type of culture that allows innovation to succeed. As you would expect, Heathrow is geared towards managing risk and driving operational efficiencies. This is done with a successful Continuous Improvement programme, however it was clear more needed to be done to enable an innovation ethos.

The key to the team’s early success was creating an environment where the right levels of support were given, and in developing a culture where it was acceptable to try, and in some cases fail (as long as it was done quickly and with the learnings shared in a comfortable environment). So support from the senior team was garnered through forming an Innovation Steering Group (ISG), chaired by the CIO but also alongside exec members from Commercial, Operations and Communications teams.

The innovation team specifically focused on meeting business challenges and not simply adding shiny new pieces of technology. This was crucial for two reasons:

  1. We didn't want to simply push new technologies for the sake of it.
  2. By targeting business challenges, we ensured that if we successfully found innovative solutions, there was a greater chance that there would be support from the business for the operational development costs.

The Process

The process is formed around a classic funnel where challenges and ideas are collected on the left. Then by using a series of lightweight tools (shown at the bottom), the team is able to rapidly triage this large group in order to leave a subset that are then moved through the phases.

Heathrow Airport Innovation Process

Challenges are collected in a variety of ways, from entries to either our global innovation competition, or smaller challenges with people emailing us or suggesting ideas to us in our roles. By far the most successful way of collecting ideas has been through challenge-gathering sessions held by the team. These are 90 minute facilitated sessions, where we ask representatives from business units across Heathrow to tell us about their challenges. We ask questions like, “What keeps you awake at night?”, “What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you ask yourself ‘if I could only change that, this would be so much easier?” or “what missing piece of data would transform the ability to do your role?”.


Once challenges are collected, metrics are used to score and prioritise. To make scoring less biased, we ask colleagues from around the department and the wider business units to join in this process. Then we use a short Fibonacci sequence (0, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13), which helps in emphasising positive outcomes, to score each challenge.

Shape and Amplify

If a challenge scores above a certain threshold, we assign a resource from the team to begin to “Shape and Amplify” by using some lightweight tools, for example a vision card. A vision card is a one-page document that collates information about the challenge (detailed description, success criteria, sponsor, champion, business benefit, etc.). This enables the Innovation Steering Group (ISG) to make an informed decision on whether to move the challenge forward to an innovation trial of some sort.


The “Proving” stage may take the form of a Proof of Concept (POC) trial, or a piece of detailed research. So the team takes whatever steps are necessary to deliver the insight required to proceed with a business case to full project funding.


This can mean developing an app, manufacturing a new device, borrowing technology or changing an existing process.  Whatever the trial or POC requires, the aim is to demonstrate a clear understanding of the measured benefits we'll achieve and the challenges we will face in implementing the technology.

Final Thought

In delivering Innovation in Heathrow, one key lesson learned has been the importance of providing a variety of approaches to engage with colleagues and partners. We try to make sure that everybody knows where and how they can come to us to talk about innovation. And we run technology showcases, deliver lectures, write papers, attend workshops.

Also, by starting with the goal of solving a real business challenge and creating new value through a product or service, we can instigate and engage in brilliant conversations.

Hopefully, you enjoyed this post. In upcoming posts, we will introduce to you some initiatives and the challenges delivered in the last few years.

Airport Survey

In collaboration with ADB Airfield Solutions, we are conducting a short online survey to identify top issues that concern airports and key priorities for 2015. The survey results will be published on both websites in May 2015 and all data collected will remain confidential. Will you take the survey?