The face of things to come in speeding up airport experience
Half a century ago, biometric technology was a fantasy of a sci-fi future, coming to our screens in 1968 in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
But while we're nowhere near heading by spaceship to Jupiter, facial recognition (as demonstrated by the movie's HAL 9000 computer), is science fact, and now poised to be an important part of our everyday lives.
Last week, Delta Air Lines opened what's been billed as America's first biometric terminal, at Atlanta Airport, with passengers allowed to opt in - or out - of using facial-recognition technology to proceed "from curb to gate". While confined to just one terminal, and just Delta and its airline partners, the offering is due to expand to other airports next year.
Closer to home, Yoti, a UK-headquartered tech company, has trialled its own offering - which uses a passenger's face to pass through ID checks - at Europe's busiest airport, Heathrow. "The process through airports is quite painful for the passenger, it's obviously inefficient for the airports themselves, and it's only going to get worse over the next 15 to 20 years if we don't do anything to change that," business development executive Gavin Watts told the Sunday Independent.
With a background in aviation, firstly in the RAF as a jet-fighter navigator, and more recently as operations manager at Gatwick Airport, he said he's aware of the "pain points" for passengers. He pointed to recent data that forecasts air passenger figures will nearly double by 2036, to 7.8 billion.
Downloadable on Android or iOS, his company's Yoti app works by creating your account online - with simple steps including taking a selfie, speaking to your phone's video camera, creating a password and scanning your passport or other state identification, with the company then verifying you are who you say you are, after which you, not Yoti, can see your personal data.
His company's technology is already in use - it's the official ID partner of the government of Jersey, and used by the Channel island's citizens to prove their age, or identity, in business or dealings with the state. It's also used by Scotland's The Improvement Service, which works on revamping local government there. The app can be used to show you're old enough to access adult-only online content (for example, from beer companies) and used to prove ID to bouncers or at cinemas - "the night-time time economy is one of our key verticals", he says. And days of teens faking ID would be over, as you can't spoof your face, but it also has the advantages of proving that older-looking teens are eligible for student travel, etc.
In travel, Yoti's work with Heathrow will see the London airport aiming to go live with its first biometric services by next summer, budgeting £50m for the project.
While more than three-quarters of airports, and 71pc of airlines, are looking at biometric technology worldwide, Watts believes that Yoti's version has a competitive advantage - the process can be started at home online. "When you book your ticket you would pass the airline on your passport info and your biometric picture, then they issue a boarding pass and those three things together become your [QR] token."
He said the airport process requires just one ID check: "You would scan your boarding pass and the camera would look at your picture and knows which face it's expecting because it knows the link to that boarding pass. Once it's taken an image of your face you've done the identity check." From then on in, through security and aircraft gate, you won't be required to shows any documents again.
Watts says the pre-planned system is faster than other trials which require your passports to be scanned at the airport and your photo taken too. "They have required you to create a token on the airport premises - it doesn't solve the problem of bottlenecks," he argues.
He backs up the assertion, saying "Heathrow have found a 25pc rejection rate" because of damaged chips on passports, or scanners unable to read them correctly". And he says biometric technology ties in with camera systems in use, adding that "most of the effort is in data transfer pipelines" from the company's servers to Heathrow itself. "It has benefit to airlines because you get passenger data upfront, benefits the airport because you can see people move through the checkpoint and you can redeploy staff to other areas but, more importantly, it creates a better experience for the passenger," he says.
He said the programme, which will kick-off in earnest in January "is dependent on airlines joining the party, but a number are keen to participate and they know the benefits to operating costs and passenger experience".
Sunday Indo Business