Digital Twins – A Crucial Stepping Stone to Modelling Next-Gen Airport Operations

Airports are complex operational environments, and the biggest of them involve the non-stop management and oversight of flights, ground ops, maintenance efforts, passenger processing and security, shopping outlets, pickup/drop-off traffic flows and much more.

Digital twin technology has already made its mark on the industry as a means of mapping the entirety of this vast and interconnected environment, but its presence is now growing at pace. Airport owners and operators are realising the inherent benefits that can be unlocked by having complete operational oversight in real time, combined with the ability to test, remodel and reimagine the airport as we know it.

Digital Twin Use cases gaining ground in 2024
Asset maintenance and monitoring: International airports may have asset and component inventories that run into the thousands or even tens of thousands of different classes, spread across operational areas spanning up to several hundred square miles. Effective maintenance relies on comprehensive analysis in real time, and digital twin setups provide this kind of oversight while enabling timely asset health checks, alerts and, in the case of emergencies, the ability to respond more rapidly, safely and accurately.

ESG: As a major contributor to global CO2 levels, the aviation industry is constantly looking for avenues to reduce its emissions and generally embrace a more sustainable and ethical approach to its operations. For airports, a digital twin is the ideal window into the areas of waste and inefficiency that can be identified and then addressed. Not only can the twin recognise where wastefulness is occurring, it can also be crucial in modelling novel ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) approaches ranging from renewable energy adoption to more ethical hiring and HR practices, all based on comprehensive operational data.

Passenger experience: Real-time mapping isn’t just a boon for the technical side of airport operations; passengers can tap into, and benefit from, the system too. Already, airports with digital twins are providing user-friendly apps for their passengers to better navigate terminals, monitor queues in security lines and popular restaurants, and generally gain a deeper understanding of what’s on offer across the airport.

International Exemplars – Airports leading the way with Digital Twins
Qatar: Hamad International Airport (HIA): Prompted by the FIFA World Cup, which saw a surge of international visitors headed to Qatar, HIA decided to take the initiative and prepared an ambitious digital twin project that would futureproof the airport and its operational processes. Thanks to forward-thinking approach, HIA is now one of the world’s leading adopters of emerging technologies. Having officially launched its Digital Twin initiative in 2022 in partnership with Saudi Airport Exhibitor Société Internationale de Télécommunications Aéronautiques (SITA), HIA is already ahead of the curve in this vital area of technological development. 18 months on from the project’s launch, HIA says that its digital twin system is responsible for faster and data-driven decision making, improved flows of passengers, flights and baggage, and more effective monitoring of airport infrastructure and asset conditions.

San Francisco International Airport (SFO): While the pandemic was clearly a disaster for the global aviation industry, it did give leading airports the necessary downtime to think big about redesigning and reshaping their operations. As part of a $7.3 billion modernization and expansion project that began in 2021, SFO developed a GIS digital twin that accurately maps and monitors every element of the operational setup, including all 1.8 million square feet of the International Terminal. Additionally, it covers all 400 miles of subsurface utilities, including water, electrical, and wastewater, even the 2,000 trees on site are included. This comprehensive living map of SFO has allowed the airport to digitise and optimise practically every operational element, from flight routing to baggage handling and even the creation of the TaxiVQ app that lets taxi drivers to reserve a spot in a virtual queue at the airport, optimising traffic flows long before the vehicles even arrive.

Bold vision comes from confidence in the data
While digital twin technology offers a wealth of opportunities to optimise existing airport operations, its true worth lies in its ability to map out future possibilities. If airport owners and their employees want to radically improve sustainability, efficiency and customer satisfaction levels, digital twins are the perfect place to rationalise the changes that will be needed. Instead of committing to costly and timely projects on a best guess basis, planners can use the accuracy of digital twin data to test potential innovations and only proceed when they are confident in the final outcome.