How tomorrow’s technology is already shaping today’s travel systems

Facial recognition systems are to be integral to border security. (Shutterstock)

Earlier this month, US Customs and Border Protection officials stopped a 26-year-old woman in her tracks at Dulles International Airport, Washington D.C. She had just flown over 5,000 miles and across two oceans with the hope of passing into the USA without attention or suspicion.

But instead, when she arrived at Dulles, cutting-edge facial recognition technology captured her image, cross-referenced its composition and detail with those stored in her passport chip, and then flagged to operatives nearby that the woman stood before them was not who she purported to be — and it did all of this within just two seconds.

Within 40 days of implementing the technology into their airport, officials at Dulles had this sequence of events play out two more times, thus becoming the first airport to identify and stop ‘impostors’ at the border using biometrics.

Human-processed passport control incurs a 15% error rate. (Shutterstock)

In 2014, USA Today reported that airport officials average a 15% error rate when comparing passengers to their passport photos. Fifteen per cent. And this isn’t necessarily down to poor training or execution of duties. Rather, humans are physiologically destined to make mistakes when confronted with the passport-checking exercise. It’s an inherent design flaw in our brains.

In replacing the naked eye with an iris-scanning, face-reading machine, then, Customs and Border Protection — among many agencies across the world — are actively tackling that error rate.

They’re also acting upon official decrees from the United Nations Security Council, who in 2017 issued a Resolution calling upon Member States to ‘strengthen measures to prevent the transit of terrorists’.

On this, biometric technology revealed itself as the natural antidote and way forward. Digital identification systems hold the key to many government concerns around terrorism and border security because of their speed, precision, and reliability — and as a happy byproduct for everyone else, they make the whole process of travelling a smoother and more efficient one.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) forecasts that the number of global air travellers will balloon from 4 billion to 8.2 billion by 2037. Given that the number of airports obviously won’t double within the same time frame to deal with this growth, there is an urgent need to develop robust infrastructure that can withstand such a dramatic increase.

Alexandre de Juniac, Director General and CEO, IATA reacted:

“Increasing demand will bring a significant infrastructure challenge. The solution does not lie in more complex processes or building bigger and bigger airports but in harnessing the power of new technology to move activity off-airport, streamline processes and improve efficiency.

Runways, terminals, and ground access to airports will come under increasing strain. Innovative solutions to these challenges, as well as to the baggage and security processes, cargo handling, and other activities, will also be needed.”

In responding to this call to arms, the USA isn’t alone. Dubai International Airport are in the process of installing aquarium-themed biometric tunnels, in which passengers are drawn to look at digital images of marine life as they walk through while being captured and approved by 80 built-in cameras.

Dubai International Airport is quick to implement biometric technology. (Shutterstock)

Royal Caribbean Cruises have also been quick to act, trialing the same technology used at Dulles in their ports to validate entry, and re-entry, to their ships. Meanwhile, Cubic Transportation Systems, known for their work on Transport for London’s Oyster technology, are working on new ‘palm vein scanning’ and facial recognition systems fit for public transportation.

Beyond transit, Marriott Hotels have been experimenting with biometric check-in kiosks, and the technology has even made its way onto Tokyo Racecourse where betting machines authenticate users by their identity card and palm in order to take bets and pay out on winning slips.

While these innovations are popping up sporadically across the globe, both in trial format and in full functionality, it’s becoming easier to imagine a full end-to-end journey in which the traveller of tomorrow can consistently get from A to B securely and efficiently with the aid of biometrics.

Over the coming months, WTTC will be exploring how innovative technologies are disrupting and transforming the Travel & Tourism sector. Stay tuned for our deep dive commentaries, which will look at the development of new technologies like Blockchain, best case practices and technology gaps in this rapidly evolving area.

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