Not long after taming fire, thanks to those opposable thumbs, humanity’s earliest ancestors looked up, not just with hunger but with envy. It would take a few go-arounds, the solution evading even Da Vinci’s genius, before the Wright brothers finally put us in the sky. Now, whether you’re a regular on the red-eye or carry an extra pair of socks in your hand luggage (just in case, right?), modern flight has become mundane. Passport? Check. Checked in online? Check. Security check? You know the drill.
Vancouver International Airport (YVR) is proof that air travel experiences don’t have to be gray. Winner of ‘Best Airport in North America’ for 12 consecutive years, the experience at YVR crescendos as you approach their new Pier D expansion which continues to showcase the airport's award-winning Sense of Place, teaching Vancouver visitors more about the land on which they stand.
YVR has an expansive NorthWest Coast Indigenous art Collection throughout the airport, promoting the rich cultural history of the original stewards of the land.
Observing the bustling terminal, Lynette DuJohn, YVR’s Vice President of Innovation and Chief Information Officer, is thrilled to have so many passengers experiencing these vibrant new features. “I remember during the pandemic when that big information board was just blank,” she laughs. “There was no traffic at all at the airport… On the other hand, I kept telling my friends and family, it was the safest place on earth because there was nobody here.”
It is this positivity, combined with a problem solving approach, that allowed Lynette to rethink team collaboration and embrace a business-threatening global shutdown as an opportunity to develop YVR’s latest, greatest innovation.
“What we wanted to do was leverage immersive technology to be able to handle whatever the return looked like. We needed to take the assets that we already had and use them more effectively. That was the genesis of the whole initiative. Digital twinning had the most immediate use cases that could make a big difference to our organization. That's where we came up with the concept of the ‘Situational Awareness Module’ - understanding what is happening in the terminal and when.”
YVR’s 3D mapping and modeling of the entire facility is different from other digital twins in the aviation industry. Because its game-changing approach to twinning was actually shaped by gaming.
“A digital twin is a way of visualizing data,” explains Lynette. “It helps you experience data in a completely different way - a visceral way. The advantage of a game engine is that you can easily move things around. We think of it as SimCity for an airport. We have that gaming mentality where we test, trial and quickly adjust, but it's all for a real-world application.”
Go Deeper: How to build a digital twin
“One of the main challenges that you have when digitally twinning anything is, well, where do you even start? There are so many use cases for digital twins, but no one quite knew what we were talking about – ‘A digital what?’ The other challenge was that we had no money. Revenue dropped off by 90%. I mean, nobody actually knew if we would ever get traffic back!”
Necessity being the mother of invention, Lynette and her team looked to their existing infrastructure for a starting point. “You’ve got to have the data first. Thankfully we have a really strong data analytics practice at YVR, so the data was in pretty good shape. It wasn’t perfect, but we had a way of exposing and understanding that data, so we built on something that the organization was already doing well.”
However, some datasets were more ready than others. “For our newest expansion of the terminal, at Pier D, we were able to use the Revit [architectural 3D design software] models from the actual construction. We ingested the data to model up what the 3D space would look like, but for the rest of the terminal we had to use another method.”
That’s where the benefits of a gaming engine’s flexibility really came in to land. “Our facilities management process greatly benefited from the conversion of various levels of data. Our engineering department had really good GIS [Geographical Information System] data on the terminal itself, so we made a 2D model first, leveraging that data for accuracy. When we started to do more three dimensional work, and with clear skies, we ran a flyover with LIDAR scanning and high fidelity camera technology for the exterior of the terminal.
“That's really what you do with the digital twin. It's not one size fits all. You’re always asking the question, ‘How can we pick off that one piece of data to make this thing come to life?’ There's no one way of doing it.”
The user interface for YVR’s Situational Awareness Module is sleek, streamlined, and compatible with mobile devices. The visualization of the digital twin can be toggled between a 2D top-down elevation and a navigable 3D representation of the terminal, all with clickable icons to reveal relevant data or timelines, depending on user need.
“For some people, two dimensions is totally fine, but many people need to experience the data in 3D. We like to build in three dimensions and then if users want to look at it in 2D, they can,” Lynette explains.
The module is already live. With the malleability of a sandbox video game, the development team is able to add interactivity to almost any asset in the twin’s virtual environment.
“Operations have been using it since about September 2021. We’ve been iterating ever since. In general, people are better editors than they are creators, so we didn't just wait for colleagues to come to us with use cases. We developed proofs of concept to open our colleagues’ minds to the possibilities and the team collaboration since then has been incredible to see. We’re continuing to iterate and now it’s our users that are driving the development journey.”
At its core, the entire project is about helping airport personnel access the data they need in a way that works for them, wherever they are, for more complete facilities management.
“Our terminal duty officers didn't want to be opening up the asset management system and entering data whilst they were out on the floor, so we just tied their system into ours,” reveals Lynette. “We have the largest building in the province of B.C. [British Columbia] and it's really hard to find where a room is. Now, they’re able to go around the terminal, and when they see something broken they can just take a picture and create the work order right in the digital twin’s virtual environment. It identifies the location accurately and automatically feeds that data into the asset management software. It's a way for people to experience data differently and it's changed the way we operate day-to-day.”
How many digital twins does it take to change a lightbulb? Maintenance is, of course, an essential task, but most customers are more concerned with getting through security quickly so they can make their flight. How is the digital twin enhancing the A-to-B of the air travel experience? With an immense array of IoT sensors across the site, the Situation Awareness Module delivers automatic alerts to operations and security teams.
Go Deeper: Finding a solution for lost luggage
“I get a little embarrassed because you would think we would know about all of this stuff, and we should know, but sometimes we don't. With baggage, it's an outsourced function.” So, blame it on the other guy and walk away? Not a chance. Lynette and her team already have plans for getting to grips with their 32km of conveyor belts.
“The baggage system is kind of in two parts: There's the actual physical infrastructure, which is a very complicated labyrinth of conveyors underneath the airport; and then there’s the high-level control system that really does all of the intelligence work. Our virtual environments haven't fully encapsulated the baggage system yet because we're upgrading our high-level controls right now, but once we’re done with the upgrade...” Lynette breaks into a full geek-out grin. “There’s a plethora of data that I just can't wait to get my hands on!”
“If a plane lands and its baggage hasn’t hit the indexing system within a certain time period, an alert goes off in the digital twin,” says Lynette. “That has been unbelievably useful with our facilities management. We are able to relay these issues to baggage handling crews on the ground, who can then go and deal with the matter quickly. It really improved baggage performance significantly over the summer.”
Speeding up the wait for your baggage is good, but can the twin overcome the dreaded security line?
Lynette answers this question with the confidence of someone who’s been asked it before. “The twin delivers visibility on what's happening in real-time. We know how many people are moving through the terminal, whether it’s going through check-in or the security gates. It really helps our operations team when we understand where to send additional support if there's congestion.
“We‘ve tied it to predictive models,” she continues. “Our guest experience teams can now look ahead and, based on historical data, they can identify potential points of congestion. We can predict the load factors of flights days in advance.”
Go Deeper: Building a predictive model
“Something we're building right now is predictive models for irregular operations. It's irregular operations where the beauty of the twin really comes into play. In a big snowstorm or electrical storm it allows our teams to see what's happening, right there and then. The predictive modeling is much better for a regular operations day, but we're building.”
It’s a catch-22 Joseph Heller would be proud of. To predict behavior during ‘irregular operations’, you want to collect data from actual ‘irregular’ events, but, as Lynette laughingly exclaims, “We don't want irregular operations!” That’s where the simulations come into play.
“We’re working on simulations where we’re taking assets out of service. What happens if a taxiway isn't available? What happens if a gate isn't available? How about two? We're developing the models right now to run minimal viable product simulations. We're learning more and more about how we can apply machine learning and AI to the models. That’s coming together quite nicely actually,” Lynette beams.
It’s no secret that all those wings in the sky create a big footprint, so the predictive powers of the twin are also being harnessed to help realize YVR’s ambitious target of achieving Net Zero across the organization by 2030.
“Energy transition is happening globally,” says Lynette. “We’re looking at what that transition will look like for the airport. We’re modeling to identify where we should place charging infrastructure on the airfield based on how the traffic moves around. Our environment team is also really interested in looking at all vehicle movement across Sea Island, where our airport is located. We’ve installed camera technology, in partnership with the province of British Columbia, to look at traffic patterns across the bridges as well. The aim is to use the digital twin to understand how energy will be used across the whole facility. Energy usage and management are a very important area of research for airports right now.”
Optimizing the efficiency of passenger progress through the terminal is one thing, but YVR is also very much about the experiences in between the lines. Lynette and her team are taking things a step further, using the flexibility of the platform’s environment to accurately reflect those people-first elements of the terminal, not just facilities management.
For instance, the airport’s structural flourishes, such as the forest enclosure, have already been digitally replicated. Now, cultural treasures such as Susan Point’s Musqueam Welcome Figures and a canoe, built as a celebration of the airport’s partnership with the Musqueam people, are also being twinned.
“We carved this beautiful canoe and now we’ve twinned that as well. You can see the grain of the wood. It's just a beautiful digital twin of that remarkable carving exercise that we worked on with our Musqueam friends.”
Go Deeper: Respectful twinning
“We always try to understand first before we build things. What would be helpful to the artists? Which artists are comfortable with us digitizing their work, and how can we use this digital platform for their benefit? We're working through that with our Musqueam friends right now.”
YVR’s Sustainability Friendship Agreement with the Musqueam people is embedded into the culture and management of the organization, but the digital twin presents opportunities extending far beyond the appreciation of cultural heritage. This innovative approach facilitates team collaboration on new fronts, such as youth engagement initiatives and the creation of employment opportunities.
“We had some of our Musqueam friends go through a program to learn on the Unity [gaming engine] platform and we’re also working with the First Nations Tech Council, putting together a program helping students to learn about the technology we have at YVR. It's a pretty exciting tech space and now they can see it, they can come in and they can experience it in a different way. It's great for us because we can get some amazingly talented young people interested in working with us.”
Aesthetically pleasing doesn’t mean impractical. One of Lynette’s longer term ambitions is for passengers to have access to the twin’s virtual environment. Because queuing simulators will be the next blockbuster gaming goldmine? Lynette laughs.
“No! There's a number of use cases that would be very, very helpful if passengers could access a version of the digital twin directly. Perhaps a passenger will need access to a wheelchair. The twin could give them advanced awareness of how to move through the terminal and access those facilities. If you're a family that has a child with autism, you could have the child experience the airport environment before they arrive. We’ve also been experimenting with VR apps. It's something we're keeping our eye on. It could be a thing, particularly in maintenance and training.”
YVR has a history of taking tech innovations and applying them to business. The Situation Awareness Module has been developed not only as an internal infrastructure optimization, but also as a commercial offering from their ‘Innovation Hub’, showcasing their commitment to digital experiences both within their operations and as a commercial strategy.
“First and foremost, the digital twin is for us to help our passengers. We need to make sure that whatever we're doing on the twin has the ultimate goal of helping our passengers move through our facility in the most effective way,” says Lynette. “The commercialization is secondary, but we know that if this works then other businesses will be interested in creating their own virtual environments.”
In an industry whose numbers are only now getting “pretty close to what they were pre-pandemic”, why would Lynette be so keen to see her twin working for the competition?
“I would love to see the whole Canadian ecosystem twinned,” she enthuses. “We're all part of a network. If everyone had this same level of situational awareness across the network our carriers would have full visibility of what's happening on the ground and could make decisions differently. That could be truly game changing for our industry.”
Go Deeper: A brief history of innovation
“We've always shown up differently from a product perspective,” says Lynette. “We developed our BorderXpress kiosks around 2010 for the Olympics here in Vancouver, then we rolled them out across Canada and had them all over the US and Europe. Our whole approach has always been to make sure that what we're building will be adopted by our own people. That's the test. You can build, and build, and build, but if no one’s using it, then who cares, right?”
The momentum of YVR’s BorderXpress self-service border control solution may have slowed down, but as ever, there was an opportunity.
“That technology is evolving and changing, but during the pandemic nobody was investing, so that business fell off. We have this incredibly entrepreneurial team that is used to providing value to customers. We were able to take advantage of these amazing skill sets that were already here, and get them focused on this newer twinning technology. With BorderXpress, we knew if we developed something that would work for us, most likely it would work for other airports, because we use them every day, and that's the approach that we're taking with the digital twin opportunity as well.”
The YVR team’s ingenuity and eye for an opportunity have ensured that their digital twin is no longer a project. It’s fully integrated at the heart of the organization’s operations. As Lynette attests: “It's the digital lens through which we run the airport. It touches everything that we do. It’s the way that we work.”
In the digitally-twinned airport business, the sky is no longer the limit. Whether it’s for colleagues or customers, intuitive and experiential visualization solutions are now essential tools for facilities management, delivering optimized operations across the air travel industry and beyond, empowering team collaboration by giving people access to data in a way that suits them.