Is This the Airport of the Future?

Photo: Hidden along a windswept road in this small, century old city near Nuremberg in southern Germany lies the future of air travel - or at least Siemens AG?s vision of it.Courtesy Siemens Airport Center
Inside the Siemens Airport Center in Furth, Germany

Hidden along a windswept road in this small, century-old city near Nuremberg in southern Germany lies the future of air travel, or at least Siemens AG's vision of it.

The German engineering giant, whose 400,000-plus employees around the globe develop technology for sectors ranging from health care to energy, erected a sprawling, state of the art mock airport terminal to test and showcase its latest innovations for airports.

Inside the airy, 90,000-square-foot glass and steel structure is an entire infrastructure of an airport, minus only the planes, runways and control tower.

Video: A tour of Siemens airport center in Germany.Play

Nearly every aspect of airport operations is tested and developed here, from high-tech baggage handling and fleet-management systems to wireless passenger check-in and 3-D security screening.

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"It may seem like a kind of amusement park for technology," says Stefan Keh, CEO of business unit infrastructure logistics for Munich-based Siemens. "But this facility and the technology being tested and developed here are dedicated to producing solutions that will make traveling safer, more efficient and ultimately better."

The airport center, built in 2005, houses real-time, check-in counters, a parking guidance system, a control center and a luggage conveyor with belt and tray conveyors stretching more than 6,000 feet. The baggage system can handle 30 million pieces of luggage per year. (In Germany, only Munich and Frankfurt airports have larger systems.)

On the passenger side of the terminal, a prototype system is being fine-tuned that would allow travelers to check in using only their mobile phones. Once a passenger makes a phone call to check in, the system then sends back a bar code that displays on the mobile phones screen. Special readers at the airport then scan and print out boarding passes.

"What we're striving for here is the most efficient way to check in and get on board," says Uwe Karl, head of Siemens airport solutions unit. "We are pushing technologies that streamline the airport process."

Better Solutions

Also being tested in the lab are new fingerprint and facial-recognition systems as Siemens targets the ever-expanding need for better security at airports everywhere.

Iris scans, fingerprint-based IDs and 3-D face digitization are all being tested here as part of the company's development of cutting-edge recognition and security systems.

One area developed by Siemens that is already being employed at airports from Seoul to Denver is a baggage system that employs radio-frequency identification or RFID technology.

The RFID tags are applied directly to baggage and are a much more efficient way of identification and tracking luggage using radio waves, Siemens' Keh says.

More than 3.1 million missing baggage reports were filed in the United Statesalone in 2009, according to the Air Travel Consumer Report produced by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Keh says the radio wave technology will eventually replace bar-code tracking systems now employed at many airports because it allows bags to be instantly updated with changes to a passengers flight or security status. That, he says, should drastically lower the risk of the dreaded lost luggage nightmare.

"From check-in to loading on an aircraft it allows more useful data to travel along with the bag," Keh says.

At Seoul's Incheon Airport, which caters to about 50 million air passengers a year, the Siemens baggage system automatically screens checked-baggage for explosives as it streams along a 900-mile conveyer tunnel that connects the airports main building with a new terminal.

Thanks to the trays, which come in a range of sizes, suitcase-type luggage as well as bulky items can be transported on the same conveyor.

Siemens has contracts to install the system at airports in Beijing, Detroit, Dubai, Los Angeles, Madrid and Seoul.

Siemens AG is no stranger to developing cutting-edge technology for airports and airlines. The company has for years been supplying a range of products and services to the sector, including automating building services and energy management to systems for airfield lighting and road-traffic management.

Bottom Line Business

Airport systems make up about 2 percent of the company's $100.7 billion annual revenue, Key says. But that number is expected to rise as the need for better airport technology surges along with the number of air travelers.

"Its more than just a business opportunity for us, Keh says. "We want to use technology and innovation to shape the way technology and innovation serves the flying public."