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The travel sector is an area where technology adoption could bring huge benefits, but it is also a traditional space where legacy can get in the way of change.

A surprising number of processes involved in air travel, from logging cargo containers to safety checklists, are still paper-based.

Understanding some of the difficulties airlines can face when adopting new technology, the International Airlines Group (IAG) runs an annual startup accelerator programme called Hangar 51.

In partnership with IAG Cargo, Iberia and Vueling, the accelerator, now in its fourth year, enables startups to work with some of IAG’s brands, which include Aer Lingus, British Airways, Iberia, Level, Vueling, Avios, IAG Cargo and IAGGBS.

“Over 10 weeks, these teams really work on very rapidly integrating and testing their technology,” says Dupsy Abiola, head of global innovation for IAG.

“Many of these technologies are award-winning, they are harnessing some of the newest things that are happening in the market, but many of them haven’t been applied to aviation.

“So we are getting an exclusive on ways that we can incorporate these types of technologies into our business and Hangar 51 is a really great testbed for that, where we’ve created a safe sandbox for everybody to come in and start testing with these types of innovations.”

During their time with mentors and industry experts from IAG and its partners, the startups develop proofs of concept to show how their business ideas could benefit the aviation world.

The 2019 Hangar 51 programme saw 14 startups selected from 474 applications across 50 countries, covering technologies such as drones for aircraft inspection, augmented reality (AR) for engine inspections and applications for customer service, all aimed at making a complex industry more efficient and effective.

Achieving carbon-neutral skies

The programme has several categories covering the areas the startups are addressing, including airport operations and logistics, future cargo logistics, and future customer interaction.

Sustainability was a new category for 2019, and Carrie Harris, group sustainability manager at IAG, says: “Climate change is a very hot topic at the moment, and for aviation in particular, because while aviation is currently only just over 2% of global CO2 emissions, we are one of the hard-to-decarbonise sectors, so while other sectors of the economy are starting to decarbonise now, for aviation it’s going to take us a little bit longer. So as we grow, so are our emissions going to grow, and that’s going to mean that, over time, we are going to be even more in the spotlight than we are already.”

IAG has created an initiative called Flightpath net zero, which aims to reach net-zero CO2 emissions for the group by 2050 by investing in more fuel-efficient aircraft, using carbon offsets and investing in “future technology”.

Two startups sat in the 2019 Hangar 51 sustainability category: Mosaic Materials, a firm that uses tiles to absorb CO2 emissions, and Climate Trade, a blockchain initiative that helps consumers to invest in green projects to offset their carbon footprint.

Thomas McDonald, co-founder and CEO of Mosaic Materials, describes carbon capture technology as almost a sponge that absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere, which can then be secured and stored, rather than adding damage to the ozone layer.

McDonald says: “You can think of carbon capture as being like a vacuum cleaner for CO2 and that wherever CO2 is, carbon capture can get it out of that source and make it into a pure stream, which can then be transported to an underground geological reservoir, where it will be safely kept for thousands, if not millions, of years. So what Mosaic Materials is developing is a new technology to make the capture side of this process more efficient.”

“You can think of carbon capture as being like a vacuum cleaner for carbon dioxide”
Thomas McDonald, Mosaic Materials

Many industries are currently in discussions about where and how to use carbon capture, says McDonald, such as powerplants and industrial sites, but it is a more expensive process in some places than in others.

For example, on an industrial site, it could cost about $20 a tonne, but to capture carbon directly out of the air could cost $500 a tonne, which makes atmospheric pollution expensive to clean up.

During Mosaic Materials’ time at Hangar 51, the startup aimed to encourage faster development of carbon-capture systems, including identifying potential partners or the involvement and development of policy parties, to make it more cost-effective for the aviation industry to use the technology to reduce atmospheric emissions.

According to Francisco Benedito, CEO of Climate Trade, in 2018, 163 million tonnes of CO2 were released into the atmosphere by the airline sector, accounting for 2% of emissions globally.

Benedito also cites research by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is concerned that without action to reduce carbon emissions, the global temperature could rise 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels by around 2040.

“All the airlines have pressure on them in terms of reducing those emissions,” he says.

Climate Trade is a blockchain platform that acts as a ledger for promises to offset carbon emissions, allowing businesses and consumers to earn points that can be invested in charities such as REDD+ or the Shade Coffee and Cocoa Reforestation Project, with the points measured and tracked through the ledger.

Benedito adds: “It’s key for transparency, and it’s key for traceability of transactions.”

During its time with Hangar 51, Climate Trade has worked with Iberia to develop a proof of concept whereby every passenger on an Iberia flight can earn points for their flights, which can be invested in one of its partner charities, with each passenger receiving a certificate showing how many tonnes of emissions they have offset.

Making customer journeys easier

As well as climate change, a number of the startups across several categories have focused on customers and their travel experiences. These include RubiQ, which aims to keep passengers aware of flight disruption using artificial intelligence (AI); Sherpa, which helps people to obtain e-visas when booking travel; Quantum Metric, which uses data to identify whether part of a digital customer journey is causing a problem; and TroopTravel, which uses data analytics to make group travel more efficient, cost-effective and environmentally friendly.

Among those focused on customer service and engagement is French startup EuroPass, which is focused on developing a service for Chinese travellers allowing them to manage most aspects of a journey through their mobile phone.

Most consumers in China use WeChat or Alibaba to communicate, rather than platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, using it not only as a social media platform, but also for mobile payments, file transfers, shopping and voice calls.

WeChat as a platform has about 1.15 billion monthly active users, and averages millions of daily users.

EuroPass has been active since 2015, and has been continuously adding to the services it offers. Initially offering services such as enabling users to swap yuan for euros to use at Disneyland Paris, it has used the Hangar 51 accelerator to experiment with travel-based services that it could potentially offer.

With the EuroPass mini-programme inside WeChat, users can purchase and use digital tickets for services in Europe such as flights, transport or tourist attractions, with the entire process, from booking to payment, taking place inside the app.

A representative from EuroPass says features such as this are what Chinese users expect from a mini-programme in WeChat.

As technology adoption has increased, so has customer expectation, so to ensure the best possible customer service, many firms have turned to offering artificially intelligent customer service to provide answers to certain questions anywhere and at any time of day.

Samuel Lacarta, director, digital business at Vueling, says technologies such as virtual assistants and bots are “part of the future of customer interaction, but the fact that we’re talking to a bot doesn’t mean we have to talk like a bot”.

During the accelerator, Vueling has worked closely with PolyAI, a startup developing “conversational” AI for use in customer service.

The business already works with companies such as Samsung and Whitbread, and has used its time in Hangar 51 to look into how its AI can be applied to the air travel sector.

Lee Cottle, former chief customer officer at PolyAI, says it aims to offer customer service beyond providing flight information or answering FAQs.

The AI is multichannel and multilingual, mainly designed for use with WhatsApp and Google, with typed as well as spoken word.

Customers can talk to the AI about their booking, and it will ask about their journey, for example whether they are happy with the number of bags they are checking in.

In flight, the AI would be used for services such as ordering food, and after the flight it can be used to order taxis.

It could also be used to check and amend anything to do with the flight, such as the flight status, boarding information, legroom, food and luggage.

Cottle says the aim of the tech is to “think about the customer and the customer record, the information you’ve got about the customer, and trying to upsell something that’s useful to the traveller and is convenient”.

He adds: “We’re all about delivering a really great customer experience.”

It takes a lot more effort these days to keep customers engaged with products and brands, so many firms have implemented loyalty programmes that reward customers for continued commitment to a brand.

Using blockchain as the basis for a loyalty platform, UK-based startup KornChain aims to create a network for partner firms to allow customers to collect and use loyalty points globally. So, customers could, for example, collect Avios points and spend them with other partner firms through the same platform, and blockchain technology would be used to track the points issued and spent, making the process virtually fraud free.

The tech behind the scenes

While travellers only experience the customer services side of the airline industry, from booking flights to checking in, there is a lot more that goes on behind the scenes that people don’t think about or get to see.

For example, AllRead Machine Learning Technologies has developed a system that digitally captures the tracking numbers of unit load devices (ULDs), which are large containers used to move goods, luggage or air mail.

A cargo container, in transit, will have a number on it that can be used to identify it, and this is usually hand-written on a form when received. This form is later typed up by a different person into an IT system.

This way of working is error prone, and can cost money in lost inventory, as well as lost working hours in trying to fix errors. AllRead has developed a technology that reads and digitises the tracking number of containers by detecting the text and turning it into big data, which is then sent to an information management system.

AllRead proposes a number of possible use cases for the technology across the aviation sector, including tracking bags and cars at airports.

A number of other startups in the cohort have been focused on the operational and logistical side of the aviation industry, using the accelerator to see how their technologies could apply to the sector. These include Whispr, which focuses on converting checklists and user manuals into interactive audio guides so that employees can relay information in real time when performing checks.

“The teams have to be hungry, they have to be really willing to open themselves up”
Dupsy Abiola, IAG

Also showcased was Atheer, which proposes an AR system that could be used for mission-critical work in industrial teams, replacing a system that was previously paper-based, involving employees using a hand-held camera during the inspection process.

Startup SynapseMX aims to use AI to increase the turnaround time of aircraft during unscheduled inspections and maintenance, and Donecle proposes the use of drones for aircraft inspections.

This mix of digital technologies could all make a difference to the aviation industry, which can be outdated in some ways, but cutting-edge in others.

As well as time spent with industry experts and developing potential use cases, there is also the possibility of investment for some of the companies that go through Hangar 51’s 10-week programme.

IAG’s Abiola says companies that take part are assessed for a number of things, including whether there could be a commercial opportunity in IAG’s business. The group has a corporate venture fund, called Hangar 51 Ventures, to help teams with capital where there might be a “long-erm strategic alignment”, she says.

“The teams have to be hungry, they have to be really willing to open themselves up and engage in a mutual to-and-from, but if they are the right types of technologies, we will try our best to incorporate them within our business, but also help them shine elsewhere,” adds Abiola.

Applications for the 2020 Hangar 51 programme close on 20 September, and will be run as a virtual event.

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