Nine million passengers wound their way through Bengaluru’s international airport in 2008, the first year of its operations. That number more than trebled to 33 million last year, and is expected to treble again over the next decade to keep up with the demands of India’s Silicon Valley.

A second runway will be operational by the end of the year, and a second terminal is also planned. But it will take more than bricks to cope with the steep rise in the number of passengers. A digital transformation is underway at the airport, adding bytes to the bricks for more capacity.

Being in the nation’s tech capital is an advantage, and a number of startups are working behind the scenes to help with this programme which has multiple elements.

Yellow Messenger, for example, provides a multilingual chatbot to answer passenger queries in real time. Apart from resolving problems and improving customer experience, the chatbot will help roll-out self-service options like biometric-based boarding, which will reduce the time taken at various stages on a passenger’s route through the airport.

The chatbot can also help increase the airport’s revenue by engaging with passengers on shopping options. Again, the value of that automated conversation multiplies when it is linked with an internal positioning system to help the passenger get to a shop or restaurant.

“Large enterprises like BIAL (Bangalore International Airport Ltd) are not looking at initiatives in silos," says Raghu Ravinutala, CEO and co-founder of Yellow Messenger. “They’re looking at a larger picture where specific components from companies like ours are stitched together and presented as a whole solution."

DIGITAL ROAD MAP

BIAL’s innovation partner to connect the dots is Accenture. The system integrator not only brings an array of startups to work with BIAL, but also irons out wrinkles as established ways to mesh with disruptors and new tech.

“There’s a cultural element to digital transformation that is often missed," says Satyaki Raghunath, BIAL’s chief strategy and development officer. “Often the biggest impediment to any transformation in large corporations is internal inertia because people are comfortable with the status quo."

The first element in making such a programme a success is articulating a digital roadmap that lets everyone involved see where they are and where they’re going. It soon became apparent that they needed to “architect platforms rather than individual point solutions," says Raghunath. The first platform, biometric-based boarding, is customer-facing, but there are others taking shape at the back end which are equally transformative. One of these is digitalization of all processes across the enterprise. Another is data analytics, and all these feed off each other. A fourth platform at an early stage is IoT (Internet of Things).

IOT PLATFORM

As a pilot project, Bengaluru-based startup Atoll Solutions has hooked up a subset of the energy meters at the airport with sensors to feed real-time data into a digital dashboard. Heating, ventilation and air-conditioning efficiency is important for an airport not only to maintain a good ambience but also to reduce cost. An IoT-based system can do that by monitoring and measuring energy consumption and quality, which plugs into analytics for load management as well as pre-empting breakdowns before they happen.

For Atoll, working in a sprawling airport posed unique challenges. “The meters are widely dispersed. The usual wireless technology won’t do. So we used wireless mesh technology where one meter communicates with another and extends the range," says Atoll CEO and co-founder Jithu Niruthambath, who worked for over a decade at Texas Instruments prior to becoming an entrepreneur.

The bootstrapped startup’s value proposition comes from the sensors it designs for different use cases as well as how it reads data off a variety of equipment. “We have done around 25 sensors useful for preventive maintenance, environmental monitoring and so on. Whenever we get an opportunity with a new client, we redo sensors which then become useful in different applications," says Niruthambath. BIAL thus plays a role in the startup’s growth by helping build new IP.

Energy efficiency is only one of the first test cases for IoT at the airport. Another use case for real-time information from IoT devices aims to reduce the turnaround time for an aircraft right from the time it lands. In fact, all mobile assets like shuttle services and fleet management would become far more efficient with IoT. As BIAL progresses along its digital roadmap, the analytics platform keeps maturing with various data sources such as commercial and financial aspects apart from IoT integrating with it. This constantly throws up new possibilities. “Every time we think we know something, we are surprised by answers we get from the data," says Raghunath.

DEEPER CHANGE

BIAL’s open innovation programme with Accenture is bringing about a change at a deeper attitudinal level too. “As we’ve gone into the journey, each small foray has led to something else," says Raghunath. “So it’s about having an open mind, and questioning what we’re doing."

Such a programme, with a long-term roadmap, makes it easier for startups to work with a large enterprise. “Since Accenture is engaged in the overall digital transformation work for BIAL, which has an innovation angle as well, our team has a clear understanding of the roadmap, the problems we’re trying to solve, and which startups could come in at what stage," says Accenture India MD Avnish Sabharwal, who initiated the deal with BIAL a couple of years ago. “This reduces the time to market for a startup, which doesn’t have to negotiate with the client separately in most cases. We do the contracting with the startup and that’s what the client also prefers."

From the enterprise point of view, one of the challenges is to pin down the return on investment for specific innovation projects. “The ability to integrate across different digital platforms and getting much better data to do things well in advance of what could have happened is our biggest benefit," says Raghunath. Here again, a system integrator and buy-in from the CEO, CFO and other department heads enables transformation.

Raghunath, who earlier headed planning and development at Dubai and London Stansted airports, says airports cannot go on building infrastructure alone; new ways of thinking with technology and open innovation have become imperative. “BIAL was designed for a maximum of 20-25 million passengers annually, but now we’re handling nearly 35 million. We’re able to do that because of technology initiatives, the ability to process more people in a finite space, and giving our operators and passengers the benefits from much better information."

Sumit Chakraberty is a contributing editor with Mint. Write to him at chakraberty@gmail.com

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