Heathrow Innovation

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.