Siemens operates this mock airport, which looks a lot like the real thing minus the gates and planes, as a way to demonstrate automation technologies for nearly every aspect of airport operations — from baggage handling and fleet management to passenger check-in and screening.
The center’s fully functioning baggage handling system consists of nearly 2,000 meters of belt and tray conveyors, 600 drives, 1,000 sensors and seven PLCs — not including two additional safety PLCs. All of the drives and controls are essentially standard, off-the-shelf Siemens’ products. “That is one of the key points of this demonstration,” says Franz-Josef Herchenbach, an engineer and project manager with Siemens’ Airport Competence Center.
The fact that the drive components are nothing unusual, though, doesn’t mean the Airport Center lacks emerging technologies.
On the passenger side of the airport, for example, Herchenbach demonstrated a prototype system that allows passengers to check in using their mobile phones. Passengers simply make a quick phone call to check in, and the system then sends back a 2D bar code that displays on the mobile phone’s screen. At the airport, special readers scan in the bar code and print out boarding passes. Also on display on the passenger side of the mock airport were new fingerprint and facial recognition systems.
Over on the baggage handling line, which has some conveyors capable of moving at 10 m/sec, the newest technology is an RFID bag tracking system, which Herchenbach believes will eventually replace bar code tracking. “RFID tags allow more useful data to travel along with the bag,” he says. Because the tags can be written to, as well as read, RFID allows bags to be updated with, for example, changes to a passenger’s flight or security status. “Once a bar code label is created, that’s it. You can’t update it without creating a new label,” Herchenbach says.
RFID in an airport setting does present some technical challenges. One obvious issue relates to RFID’s problems in metallic environments — and there are plenty of aluminum suitcases out there. But Siemens already developed industrial RFID systems tuned to work in metallic environments.
The other relates to reading the tags one bag at a time on a moving conveyor belt. Herchenbach says the situation on a baggage handling line differs from a typical warehouse application, where it may be desirable to read the tags for an entire pallet’s worth of products all at once. “Here we must read one bag at a time with 100 percent certainty on a fast-moving conveyor,” he says.
To do that, Siemens developed an RFID reader optimized for baggage handling lines. The reader uses three antennae, one for power and two for reading. A steel box mounted over the baggage conveyor houses the antennae and provides some shielding. Only the bag passing through the box is read at any given time. Herchenbach says the system is still in the prototype phase as Siemens’ engineers work to make the system as small as possible, maximize line speeds, and minimize baggage spacing on the conveyor.
The history of computerized baggage systems could hardly be termed smooth. Denver’s International Airport was saddled with a failed computerized baggage system for years after it opened in 1995 due to a host of software problems. One of the airport’s largest tenants, United Airlines, finally gave up on it in 2005.
If you want to catch a flight from the Siemens’ Airport Center in Fürth, Germany, you will have to wait a very long time. But on the bright side, you won’t have to stand in a long security line or worry about losing your luggage.