Under the skin: will using implants for travel take off?

Imagine passing through an airport – and all that entails – without a paper boarding pass or mobile ticket equivalent. That’s what Andreas Sjöström, a man who eats, sleeps and breathes technology, did late last year, with a simple swipe of his wrist.


Airport boarding

Arriving at Stockholm Arlanda Airport in late 2015, Andreas Sjöström, vice president and global head of digital at Sogeti, became the first person ever to pass through airport security and board a flight using only the near field communication (NFC) chip implanted in his hand.

About the size of a grain of rice and sitting just beneath the skin, this chip, from company Dangerous Things, contained Sjöström's Airlines EuroBonus member ID. Note, this is not his flight information, which rather, as he points out, was stored on Scandinavian Airlines' system. He did not need to show his passport as he was travelling between Schengen countries.

"The NFC chip is really just a memory card," he says. "You can read from and write to it; just as you can with the memory card you have in your camera or with the USB stick you use with your computer."

Sjöström's inspiration for the experiment was simply his fondness for seeing what is possible; "clearly, development never stops, so the next natural step is implanting technology," he says. As it stands, that means using NFC technology.

Activating the chip

The chip, he adds, does not require a power source and therefore cannot "transmit" information on its own. What Sjöström had to do was place his hand just a few inches away from NFC readers dotted around the airport. The reader then uses magnetism to generate enough energy to wake up the chip, which then responds with the data it has stored on it. "Then it goes to sleep again," he explains.

Aside from organising the experiment with the airport, no other special arrangements were necessary.

The process - from implanting the chip to arriving and passing through security and boarder clearance - was seamless. However, the physical action of using an implant on the readers was uncomfortable, as they are positioned and designed to read cards, not implants in hands.

"The NFC chip is really just a memory card."

"It's not very comfortable to lean forward, angle the hand correctly, and then have the reader pick up the chip," says Sjöström. This, in addition to how chips are used for just one purpose or transaction, means that a paper boarding pass is easier to use in the current set up, he admits.

"In Stockholm we use NFC cards for buses and metro," Sjöström adds. "You can top them up and use them for travel. The sad thing is that there is no standard on how NFC solution providers use the chips. That makes it difficult to use the same one for multiple services."

A personal experiment

Throughout the conversation, Sjöström is keen underline that he was merely engaging in a personal experiment. For while it does represent an indication of an improved travel authentication technique, implants may not become ubiquitous among the jet set.

"I believe that biometrics will be a key part of [the future], but I doubt it will be in the form of implants," he says. "Not until implantable technology adds more value than just authentication will it be adopted."

There's also the social reaction and acceptance to consider. Although Sjöström received plenty of positive and constructive feedback, some were less enamoured with the experiment, believing it to be a step too far.

Sjöström admits that some of the criticism surprised him, but he appreciates the concern, particularly when it comes to security. "Every concern regarding integrity and security needs to be taken seriously," he says. "If this kind of technology is to ever be adopted, we must ensure that each individual user always has full control of what data is passed back and forth, and when."

NFC technology is relatively secure, however. According to How Stuff Works, the short range that it requires acts as a safeguard against hackers. "Many NFC applications work at such short range that you virtually have to touch a smartphone to an NFC device in order to establish the connection," the website adds.

'80% of travel will be completely paperless before 2020'

Even so, there's a palpable feeling that NFC implants are not the future of air travel - at least, not in their current form. As mentioned, Sjöström sees biometrics as the likely way forward. There's also the International Air Transport Association's (IATA) One Identity initiative, which is working to support a seamless journey where identity checks do not interfere with the passenger experience.

"Paper boarding passes will not be around forever."

This is part of a larger programme called Simplifying the Business and is currently in the early stages of development. "Airlines and airports are just getting together to try to define the scope and potential solutions," says Sjöström, who is working with airlines and airports on IATA related projects.

Paper boarding passes will not be around forever; mobile check-in is becoming more and more popular. But, don't write them off completely.

"We have a tendency to declare old technology dead too soon," says Sjöström. "The computer has been dead for many years according to some, yet most of us use them daily. Paper boarding passes will be around for a long time to come, at least as backup. However, I believe that more than 80% of travel will be completely paperless before 2020."