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).
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.
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.
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