Will airport of the future fly?

Cisco technologist envisions virtual intelligence agents, security sensors, home office pilots. He faces challenges.

Stefanie Olsen
Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
3 min read
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--The airport of tomorrow might have virtual intelligence agents that check your bags, "smart dust" sensor networks that vet passengers heading through security and commuter pilots who fly the plane from a home office.

That is, if Dave Evans' vision is to be believed. As chief technologist for Cisco Systems' Internet Business Solutions Group Innovations Team, Evans set the stage Tuesday for technology innovations that will help shape the future of airport travel here at the opening of the FAA/NASA/Industry Airport Planning Workshop.

"This is a great time to innovate," Evans said as he delivered the keynote speech at the two-day conference held at NASA's Ames Research Center here.

Evans' wide-ranging technology predictions were met with excitement and fear among airport industry executives in attendance. They also met plenty of skepticism, given that the airport industry is still lagging on the most urgent technological needs, such as improved security devices to scan luggage and passengers for bombs and other dangerous devices headed onto planes. Advances in technology and security systems are too mired in government regulations and approvals to advance, according to some executives attending the conference.

We're dedicating a huge amount of resources to focus on (narrow issues), and that sucks up resources that could identify new technologies.
--Joseph Richardson, airport properties manager, UPS

"I think it's a real challenge for government to react to technology changes, whether it's security or flying," Steve Martin, chief financial officer at the North American division of industry association Airports Council International, said while speaking on a panel following Evans' speech. "I don't see government agencies being able to keep up with technology's exponential growth."

Despite the real-world challenges, Evans described several technologies that could ultimately benefit and change the airport industry.

Airport screeners, for example, could remotely identify and check in passengers carrying a cell phone or document embedded with an RFID (radio frequency identification) chip. Digital displays in airport terminals could be used to show real-time data on arrivals and departures. They could also be used to change a tarmac color to signify a landing, Evans said.

What's more, advances in so-called brain-machine interfaces, which enable people to prompt actions with thought via electronic wires to the brain, could bring opportunities in remote flying, he said.

Evans also said he has developed technology for virtual intelligence personnel that can learn by interacting with real employees. He built the software to solve issues in human resources at Cisco so that the virtual agents could handle personal tasks like travel planning or questions like where to find pertinent human resources forms. The agents would learn over time from individuals' questions and from the group of employees on the whole, he said. Still, Cisco is not using the agents yet, he said.

Cisco doesn't currently have any deals with airports, but the company's wireless networking equipment could become crucial in an Internet Protocol-connected airport of the future.

Still, Joseph Richardson, airport properties manager at UPS, pointed to Congress' reactive approach to security threats as part of the problem. For example, he said, Congress required travelers to remove shoes at security checkpoints following the threat of shoe bombers in a London airport.

"We're dedicating a huge amount of resources to focus on (narrow issues), and that sucks up resources that could identify new technologies," Richardson said.

Dennis Roberts, director of airport planning and programming at the Federal Aviation Administration, was hopeful that technology itself could mitigate the problem of educating policy makers who are generally not technical people.

"One of the things we can do with technology is to show decision makers simulations, or three-dimensional pictures, of how new systems would operate," he said, arguing that aviation simulations could help forecast potential issues. "There's a huge opportunity of how to sell that message."

But he added that the FAA is wary of potential litigation from the broadcasting industry over projects such as spectrum-reliant control towers.

As for airport officials, the challenge is to think differently.

"The current challenge is thinking beyond the technology and how we're going to deal with this huge, rapid change," Roberts of the FAA said.