Digital Cameras and Bluetooth Ease Travel Through Houston Airports

Modern technology may help the Houston Airport System take some hassle out of air travel.

by / May 31, 2011

Cameras in airports give control room operators a good handle on all airport activity — long security lines, busy check-in counters and terminal waiting areas included. These cameras are typically used for security purposes. But in Houston, city airport officials are taking an even closer look at understanding airport activity through a customer service perspective — and standard surveillance cameras may not be enough.

“Certainly we use cameras all over the airport for security purposes, but there are some implications that are a little more related to customer service where we are looking to get data collected about what’s happening within our facilities and on our roadways,” said Lisa Kent, CIO of the Houston Airport System (HAS), which represents Houston’s three airports: George Bush Intercontinental, William P. Hobby and Ellington. Last year, HAS partnered with Purdue University to conduct a unique study: The two entities used Bluetooth technology to track the nearly 50 million people who passed through Houston’s airports. Officials hope the study’s results, which are also of interest to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), will ultimately improve customer service and the general airport experience.

A Detailed View

In a Bluetooth environment, data is transmitted over short distances between fixed or mobile devices. In Houston, the technology will reveal whether construction was causing traffic backups, or if passengers were delayed from leaving parking garages because payment transactions took too long. The TSA wants data on how long customers wait in line before going through security checkpoints. After passengers are through security, Kent wonders where they go next. “Do they spend much time in the concession areas? Do they go straight to the gate hold room and stay there?” she asked.

 The Bluetooth study, she said, was a way to track the transit time for people carrying Bluetooth-enabled devices that are in discoverable mode, and to measure that transit time between point A and point B.

The project went live inside Bush Intercontinental’s terminal and on the roadway and parking garage. HAS officials analyzed customer activity by tracking people’s movements between those points. “That helps us plan for a better customer experience so that people are happy while they’re in our facility,” Kent said. Bluetooth antennas with sensors were installed in various areas and captured discoverable unique serial numbers. The numbers, called media access control (MAC) addresses, are emitted by phones, iPads, phone earbuds or other Bluetooth-enabled devices. The sensors captured a person’s MAC address as he or she passed by, and then successive sensors also captured it as the person continued on his or her way. Long-range sensors detected movement on roadways, and short-range sensors detected movement inside the building. The pilot also incorporated GPS technology.

In total, nine sensors were deployed, including one on each roadway coming into the airport, in the garages, at the two terminal entrances, at the ticket lobby, in the north and south concourses, and near airport checkpoints.

“We were trying to demonstrate that not only were we capturing the wait time through the checkpoint, but then how long it took the passenger to get through the checkpoint and actually out to one of the gate concourses,” said Project Manager Darryl Daniel.  

There’s bound to be worry about privacy and anonymity with a project that tracks people’s movements. But according to Kent, there’s no reason for concern. “We truncate that MAC address, so even if I had the full MAC addresses, there isn’t a way for me to associate that address with your cell phone number,” she said, “and certainly not with your name.”

The technology was used to calculate passenger transit time from sensor to sensor. The data wasn’t transmitted in real time during the pilot, but that’s something HAS would shoot for in a permanent deployment, along with ways to involve security cameras.  “We are looking at camera locations to give us views of things like those queues so that, in a future phase, when we do see that wait time is increasing, we can actually look at the queue to determine if there is a problem [there],” Daniel said.

HAS considered using video analytics for the customer wait-time analysis, but Bluetooth was cheaper and easier, Kent said. Airport lines can be fluid and unpredictable, making it tough to rely solely on camera technology without backup for deep study.

With the pilot completed in September, airport system officials have a better understanding of how to approach a permanent deployment. Neither Kent nor Daniel specified when that would happen, but they offered details on how data from a long-term project could be applied. Customer preferences, for example, may become more obvious. “If we have certain concessions in an area that passengers are just walking right past, they’re not even dwelling to look, it helps us make decisions from a commercial standpoint about what we should consider changing,” Kent said.

They would also have a better understanding of where sensors should be located. During the study, some sensors were too close together or long range when they should’ve been short range and vice versa.

HAS also must work with the federal government on interpreting and applying the data. “If you’re comparing information about how many people went through at the same time [that] you’re measuring wait time, you’re getting feedback from your partners like the TSA about how many lanes were open at that point,” Kent said.

A History of Change

A partnership with the TSA could benefit HAS airport personnel. Kent said the TSA could handle operational deficiencies at terminals, and information gleaned from the Bluetooth pilot could tell them how.

But airport officials aren’t relying on that project alone to strengthen the alliance. HAS is also working with the TSA on an advanced surveillance program so the federal government can learn how much and what type of technology it would need to enhance airport security. The Aviation Safety Program allows the TSA to fund a portion of the camera system and recording capabilities for that project and, in exchange, TSA workers view the camera feeds.

“In general terms, we are deploying newer camera technologies, some additional storage capabilities, and additional viewing and monitoring capabilities that enable us to do a better job of monitoring more and more cameras,” Kent said.

Video surveillance has been in place in HAS’ system for as long as Kent and Daniel can remember, but technical migrations have happened over time. The cameras at Bush and Hobby, for example, were analog, but staff incorporated digital functionality from 2006 to 2009. And more digital units are on the way. “We are just now starting to design and deploy pure IP digital cameras,” Daniel said. They include high-definition and megapixel units. “It’s an ongoing migration, and you’ll see that in every industry with their surveillance technology.”

Today the camera hardware environment is a conglomerate of units from different vendors (Kent and Daniel couldn’t divulge which for security reasons) and they’re supported by Honeywell software. Kent added that HAS is committed to routine technology refreshing, which keeps security updated and enhances efficiency. She admits that the surveillance technology in the terminals isn’t as sophisticated as what’s in most casinos, but she’s happy with it so far. And according to Daniel, most units are built to last. “The life cycles of the cameras are pretty robust,” he said.


Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.

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