Undaunted by big data: Embracing the revolution in the world of airport

Helios’ Claire Blejean unveils the incredible potential of big data for the world of aviation and airport.


In 1965, the co-founder of Intel, Gordon Moore, stated what has now become his eponymous law: “The amount of information which can be stored on a given surface doubles every two years”.

In the half century since then, this observation has continued to hold true, and currently humanity is able to generate 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day. Even more striking is the fact that 90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone1. This is commonly referred to as “Big data” and the aviation industry has not been unaffected, from ticketing information recorded by airline booking websites, that give insights into travellers’ purchasing habits, to the aircraft condition monitoring system (ACMS), that keeps track of jet engine sensor data and can help identify vulnerabilities.

Currently a lot of this information and the significant insights which lie hidden within, remain untapped and only accessed in case of failure. This is partly because some of the tools being used (such as Excel and database software) may be able to handle and store the information generated by the aviation industry, but on their own are insufficient to get full value from the data being collected. A move towards more specialised software and technical analysis methods is therefore needed.

For example, Helios was recently tasked with investigating variation in the location and concentration of aircraft arriving at a major UK airport. Radar data formed the input and the files contained 3-dimension coordinates for all flights arriving and departing over a three-month period. This corresponds to seven million lines of data making up over 35 million data points. Correctly processed, this data can enable statistical analysis, static visualisation, geographic overlays and videos. It would not be possible, nor practical to process it in Excel, and so instead we developed a customised Python program, producing heatmaps to show aircraft density, isolate individual flights and to visualise horizontal or vertical profiles over specific areas.

Like much of our work, this project was about more than analysing and processing large datasets. It was about presenting complex multifaceted information in a meaningful and flexible way. In this case, the results were to be presented to non-experts, who may not be familiar with the intricate moving 3D jigsaw that are aircraft flight tracks, so data visualisation became especially important.

Along with the rest of the world, the aviation industry will go on recording increasingly detailed data. This presents us with a golden opportunity to find answers to our clients’ questions. A move towards more specialised software and customised programming is an exciting first step in embracing what has been dubbed “the big data revolution”.

1IBM – What is big data?, 2017

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