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Innovating Vancouver Airport with Chris Gilliland

YVR Director of Innovation and Technology spoke on the Venari Podcast

Before COVID, innovation and tech transformation was ‘nice to have’ for airports, Chris Gilliland says. ‘I think what the pandemic and all of the subsequent issues that have arisen within the airport and airline industry have taught us is that this is no longer just a luxury.’ Two years on from the widespread lifting of travel restrictions, aviation has returned to profitability – a remarkable turnaround given the parlous state of the industry during COVID. However, in an area where profit margins are wafer-thin, it is particularly important to innovate. Technological transformation is key for survival, and this is arguably of particular importance for airports. Chris knows all about this from his role as Director of Innovation and Technology at Vancouver Airport (YVR) – and Liv Britz, our Senior Digital & Tech Consultant, was delighted to hear his insights on the Venari Podcast. Over the course of an enlightening interview, Chris shared insights into YVR's pioneering approach and the importance of innovation in a post-pandemic world.



First steps in innovation

Chris has been in this role since 2013, having had progressively different roles at YVR previously. He saw this as an opportunity ‘to develop new technologies’ to use themselves and potentially sell on. YVR is one of just a handful of airports to have in-house software development, and Chris is delighted about having more control over their tech; while he recognises that suppliers certainly play their part, ‘airports can take a much bigger role at charting their own course’ in digital innovation.

For example, in the late 2000s YVR was among a number of locations to have significant problems with long border queues. They collaborated with the Canada Border Services Agency, hired developers and solutions architect product owners, becoming the first airport to introduce kiosks for border control in 2013. The results were dramatic; ‘we had other airports knock on our doors [...] Right up until the pandemic, I think we were at 57 airports around the world.’ Chris cites Schiphol Airport as another space that has brought in-house models to market successfully, though he encourages colleagues to consider using dedicated internal development teams – ‘it’s a pretty cool business model’.

Digital twin – innovating for the future

YVR's latest milestone is the development of its digital twin platform, which replicates the airport’s facilities in their entirety. During the pandemic, the digital innovation team at YVR invested significantly in this project, ‘capturing all of the data so that we could create really high-fidelity, three-dimensional model of our facilities,’ Chris says. ‘We also have a two-dimensional model of our facilities. And what the digital twin essentially does is it's a scalable platform that brings in all of the data sources at an airport.’ Digital twin integrates the many complex systems operating at YVR in one place, an innovation that was previously lacking in aviation. With this platform, the airport's operations, facilitating data-driven decision-making and predictive insights can now be tracked with machine learning and AI, helping staff to understand not just what happens moment-to-moment, but also ‘what's going to happen today or tomorrow, next week or next year’, allowing employees to make data-based decisions quickly.

Initial discussions around YVR’s digital twin came about through a meeting during the pandemic. ‘We had an executive CEO change, and that was really the catalyst,’ Chris explains. ‘I recall one of my first meetings with Tamara [Vrooman] was her asking us, “Why don’t we have it? Why don't we have a digital twin?”’ Chris remembers googling the term during the meeting to bring himself up to speed, but just ‘a couple months later we had the initial investment that we needed and within six months we had our proof of concepts out and being used by our employees.’ The platform has garnered interest from other airports and is poised to revolutionise the industry by fostering collaboration, improving operational efficiency, and enhancing the passenger experience.

Stumbling blocks and productive partnerships

Chris admits that YVR’s digital twin took a little while to get going – not least given its launch in the traditionally bureaucratic, conservative airport space. ‘Introducing new technologies, that’s always a challenge,’ he notes. Still, Chris believes that having executive sponsorship – indeed, innovation, in YVR’s case – from the get-go is key. Projects can be smaller, more agile, in the beginning; he recommends focusing on proving ‘the concept, have some really good visuals to be able to show what's happening, and then slowly work your way around the organisation’ instead of wanting everything to be perfect from the off.

The innovative philosophy of YVR’s team allowed them to go to market quickly, exchanging value – resources and data to work with, in return for marketing and ‘bragging rights’ – with partners and other airports. Digital twin was a case in point: rather than going to market with a long competitive bid, YVR identified Unity – ‘probably the largest gaming engine in the world’, as Chris notes. ‘We really liked their philosophy,’ and working with Unity allowed YVR to really accelerate development – the product was out and in use among employees within six months.

Digital twin’s uses

By bringing together stakeholders and streamlining communication, digital twin enhances collaboration and enables proactive problem-solving. YVR's programme has applications ranging from operational efficiency to climate objectives, with the ability to simulate and optimise various scenarios.

"We have what you would call a situational awareness module. So, we're looking at passenger flows, we're looking at capacity constraints and we're getting alerts of where we're going to have potential issues. For example, coming in through customs." Chris Gilliland

Potential issues can be pre-empted, with resources shifted according to flight activity. Simulation also allows the team at YVR to consider variables, such as what might happen if a runway or flight path is put out of service, as well as allowing them to monitor and improve GHG emissions in real time. ‘That's really powerful stuff, because when you start to look at simulation and being able to put a flight schedule in six months in advance, we can start to apply machine learning and AI to let us know what's the most efficient use of our airside.’

Digital twin is not only helpful for analysing the day-to-day operations of an airport; Chris notes that ‘it can also have heart and soul’. He mentions that YVR is located on land belonging to Canada’s Musqueam people, with whom the airport holds partnerships as well as a sustainability and friendship agreement. The YVR team are using digital twin to tell the Musqueam’s story: ‘We’re going to create a virtual museum of all of the artwork we have at YVR and to be able to display on all our platforms. And also, you know, we're going to roll back, a little bit of a timeline and to be able to show what our airport looked like years, hundreds of years ago before there was an airport and we had Musqueam villages. So again, it helps us with our reconciliation efforts.’

Innovation a problem – but constraints can be constructive

Apart from Schiphol, Chris admires airports like Dallas-Fort Worth, Hamad International, and Aeroporti di Roma. He believes that the main obstacle for innovation in aviation is raising the necessary investments; quite apart from the difficulty of raising funds in hard times, it can be difficult to predict whether a given product will catch on. ‘You can invest all of the money into a solution, but if no one’s using it, why did you do that?’

However, he does believe that constraints – whether budgetary or special – can actually be very useful ‘for forcing innovation and being really creative’ and entrepreneurial. He is not relying on future investments from Unity for digital expansion at YVR; rather, Chris wants to focus on the active discussions and showcases of their work to the Canadian government. ‘I’m really pleased to see that the government sees the value of what we’re doing [...] they’re willing to invest in it’. YVR are also looking at collaborating with other industries who could apply their model, for instance the port facility in Vancouver. The goal is ‘to be self-funding in terms of our product’, following a pattern for digital twin that YVR established with their airport kiosks.

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