London Airport Enables Proximity Apps With BLE Beacons

By Claire Swedberg

Gatwick Airport's 2,000 Bluetooth Low Energy beacons, from Pointr Labs, are transmitting to the phones of passengers and airport personnel, so that the airport, airlines and stores can build apps that guide passengers to flights, offer them promotions at nearby stores, and provide location data to staff members responding to calls.


London’s Gatwick Airport has installed 2,000 Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons across its two terminals to help passengers navigate their way to flights, as well as receive push notifications. The beacon system, known as the “indoor blue dot,” was provided by Pointr Labs. The solution is live now, but it is likely to be a few months before any apps deploy functionality that employees and passengers can use. The goal is for numerous apps to be built to use the proximity-based data, including by the airport, airlines and stores.

Gatwick Airport is one of four major international airports serving the London area. In 2016, 43.2 million passengers traveled through the facility—a number up by 7.1 percent compared to the year prior. In late 2015, the airport launched its Community App to help employees communicate with each other and to view flight details. However, neither this app nor any customer-facing airline apps had used technology for proximity detection.

Abhi Chacko

Gatwick Airport is now working with app developers to incorporate the beacon data into the airports apps, as well as those of other companies at the airport, says Abhi Chacko, Gatwick’s head of IT for commercial and innovation. App developers use Pointr Labs’ software development kit (SDK) to build the beacon functionality into their own apps.

What functionality gets delivered to end users will depend on those developing the apps, Chacko says. For instance, he adds, in the case of an airline, “They could show the route to departure gate, if the boarding pass information is already available in the app.” Vendors, in the meantime, could provide offers or coupons to passenger as they pass stores.

First and foremost, the technology could provide wayfinding capability. Airports, in general, can be complex places to navigate, Chacko points out, so Gatwick opted to launch the BLE-based system to help passengers access indoor navigation maps—which, in the long run, can be used, along with airport, airline and other third-party apps, to enhance the experience of being at the airport, he says.

Wayfinding could not only direct passengers quickly to their departing flight gate or to the proper security line, but could also assist them in finding the nearest bathroom or ATM machine. “Easier navigation has the the potential to reduce the number of missed or delayed flights,” Chacko states, “because airlines can deliver proximity-based flight information to passengers.”

The apps could benefit more than just passengers, however. For instance, airlines could use the proximity-based data in their own apps to better understand where each passenger is and whether he or she will make it to a flight on time. It would also enable an airline to make an informed decision, based on a particular passenger’s location, regarding whether to wait or offload a late-running passenger’s luggage so that an aircraft can take off on time.

The airport intends to use the data in its existing systems as well. “We are currently integrating [the technology] into our Airport Community app,” Chacko says. The goal is to enable 8,000 of the airport’s 24,000 employees—who work for around 200 different organizations, including airlines, ground handlers, retailers, tenants, police and immigration—to share real-time information about their location and status. “It keeps staff ‘in tune’,” he explains, “by sharing real-time information with 8,000 users.”

Already, Chacko reports, the app without BLE data has become essential for those who work at the airport, who use it on their personal smartphones. “We hope the new wayfaring technology will also become an essential part of the app,” he states, “and we may well evolve functionality that allows staff to locate where a fault is reported from.”

Chacko adds that the airport will not collect a passenger’s personal data, such as that person’s identity, as he or she uses the technology. However, it can utilize the beacon transmissions to measure the density of passenger traffic through beacon zones, and such transmissions could also help it to better strategize its operations in order to prevent congestion.

The battery-powered beacons have provided the airport with the benefit of keeping logistical complexity and costs low, Chacko says. The deployment took only three weeks to complete, he notes, followed by two months of testing and calibration.