Looking Back at 2017: Making Strides in Biometrics with Face Recognition

Face Recognition

As we  begin 2018, the Connected Aviation Today team wanted to take some time to reflect on some of the major initiatives  in the aviation industry over the last year. For our first installment of these reflections, we spoke with Nick Whitehead, Head of Strategic Partnerships at Aurora AI. Prior to joining the Aurora team, Whitehead spent 10 years at Atkins developing airport security solutions and was one of the key staff members responsible for the face recognition system at Heathrow Airport. He plans to translate that experience and help Aurora grow their AI/deep learning solutions portfolio.

Given his experience, Whitehead has a compelling perspective on the growth of biometrics in airports and what benefits it delivers to the traveler. Here’s what he had to say about challenges faced and progress made in 2017:

Connected Aviation Today (CAT): What have been the big developments in the aviation industry in 2017?

Nick Whitehead (NW): The opening of the new facilities at Changi, which utilize face recognition  to move a step closer to the seamless travel vision, has to be the biggest development last year. While the use of face recognition has been in operation to logically separate departing passengers at airports such as Heathrow and Manchester for more than five years (implemented by Atkins/Aurora), and is widely used as part of semi-automated immigration processes extending the operation across the whole journey is really important.

This has been made possible by huge advances in the underlying technology resulting from the application of “deep learning” to the facial matching algorithms. Accuracy levels are now so good that the long promised vision of removing the need for a boarding pass and replacing it with the use of your face as a ticket is a reality.

I think we will look back on 2017 as the time when we moved from promise to delivery of these systems, marking a transformation of the way in which passengers transit the departure process.

CAT: What challenges still remain that need to be addressed today and also in the near future?

NW: One of the key challenges that remains is to deliver on promises made under the area known as big data. In my opinion, the benefits of exploiting the large amounts of data that are associated with airports and airlines have yet to be realized. The industry has been guilty of hype regarding the insight that can be drawn and the operational efficiencies that will follow. Perhaps the application of deep learning will also have a significant impact here.

Many companies have picked up on this, including my own, and the solutions being proposed apply image recognition in other contexts such as baggage screening, for example. Artificial intelligence (AI) is the latest buzz word. And while for many this will lead to bots or natural language processing, applying the same techniques to build accurate predictions of future events from existing data storage is likely to transform operations centers at airports in the next couple of years.

CAT: If you could sum up the year in one sentence – what would it be?  2017 was the year of the ________. Tell us why.

NW: 2017 was the year when passengers finally started to see the full benefits of face recognition in simplifying the departure process through airports. At last, we are starting to gain a clearer picture of how biometrics are changing the airport travel process and adoption in airports like Heathrow and Manchester are only the beginning.


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