Albany Airport, GE unveil digital incubator for travel technology during COVID and beyond

ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER GE Research spokesman Todd Alhart demonstrates the Wellness Trace App at Albany International Airport in Latham on Thursday, November 12, 2020. 

GE Research spokesman Todd Alhart demonstrates the Wellness Trace App at Albany International Airport in Latham on Thursday, November 12, 2020. 

COLONIE — General Electric and Albany International Airport are working together to improve airport operation and traveler experience with digital technology.

The company and the Airport Authority announced their collaboration Thursday, and rolled out the first piece of it: A real-time smartphone readout of the sanitization status of 45 separate traveler contact points across the airport.

The application is designed to make travelers feel more confident about using the airport at a time when COVID-19 is spreading across the nation through various means of transmission, including air travel.

Future applications may help ease the pedestrian flow through the airport, which was not designed in a way that would allow everyone to stay six feet apart during peak travel periods.

The effort is a project of Cincinnati-based GE Aviation and GE Research, based in Niskayuna. Albany International Airport was chosen as the site of the digital incubator because GE Research has previously collaborated with the Airport Authority.

GE Aviation’s new Wellness Trace App made its world debut Thursday at the main terminal in Colonie. Travelers can use their smartphones to scan QR codes at 45 locations throughout the facility where many people are likely to contact the surface, such as at check-in counters.

Shortly before noon, a scan of one of the United Airlines ticket counters showed it had been sanitized and cleaned at 8:45 a.m. and 6:02 a.m. Later in the day, a check back showed cleaning crews hit the area again at 1:28 p.m. and 3:39 p.m.

The name of the cleaner and the details of his work at each time were displayed, and a link offered the blockchain verification of this.

Blockchain, a digital means of security and verification used in cryptocurrency and many other cyber applications, is technology far in excess of what’s needed for a record of mopping, swabbing and disinfecting, but GE is using it here because future uses could include more-sensitive information such as health records and travel itineraries. The app could find customers in the hotel, event and surface travel industries.

A three-month trial is underway at the airport, after which GE and the authority will look for any possible upgrades of the current functions and consider the feasibility of expanding it to include health screenings.

There isn’t a specific wish list of new tools that GE or the Airport Authority are working toward at this point, just a general goal: to improve the airport and ease travel through it.

Success would be a marketing point for GE Aviation, which has already received interest in Wellness Trace from other airports and airlines as the air travel industry struggles to recover from the setbacks suffered amid the COVID pandemic, with its huge decrease in air travel.

The airport would benefit in two ways: New tools to consider as it prepares to draw up its first new master plan in 25 years, and a new way to cope with the unprecedented disruption to air travel that the worldwide pandemic has created.

Airport Authority CEO Philip Calderone said the airport has seen passenger volume decline twice this year — the massive drop in travel this spring, then a partial recovery, then another decrease when New York imposed travel quarantines. It is operating at about 75 percent of normal passenger volume now.

Calderone said he’s not encouraging people to travel during the crisis, but for those that want or need to, he wants the experience to be less worrisome.

“How do we, given all the things that we have done at this airport, try to instill confidence in the traveling public that this airport experience is safe?” he asked.

The new app is one way.

Amy Linsebigler, a chief scientist at GE Research and its commercial director, said eight to 10 people are working on the projects that will be tested at Albany International Airport, mainly specialists in various digital technologies, including artificial intelligence, video analytics and data analytics.

“The aviation industry, the government, society in general is really grappling with the challenges posed by the pandemic,” she said. “So us working with them is a great opportunity for us to demo technology, to test it, to have this incubation process … and really create some very real solutions for society.”

She and Calderone said additional projects will be rolled out in coming weeks.

“One of the main things we’re working on is the footprint in front of the security space,” she said. There’s just not enough room for everyone to line up six feet apart and await their turn at the checkpoint.

In the longer term, the airport may bump the lineup area across the bridge and into the garage.

In the shorter term, GE Research is looking for a way to maximize efficiency of space and movement on the second floor of the terminal, building off work it did to help hospitals optimize the space in their operating rooms.

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