The debate about the development of Heathrow Airport's £4.2bn Terminal 5 (T5) has been long and intense, but following the conclusion, in 2001, of the public enquiry to establish the need for a new terminal, the project's many stakeholders have been pushing hard to bring the project in on time.
Early in 2006, as construction of T5 neared completion, BAA began the installation of the £250m IT systems infrastructure at Heathrow that will act as the backbone for the terminal's operation. Getting the technology right is crucial, as is ensuring that systems are fully operational from the word go.
T5 will use an XML-based central messaging hub, which it believes will be the basis for the most advanced airport IT infrastructure in the world.
As the foundation on which many of the terminal's systems will be based – providing as it does a standard interface between numerous applications – this network shows that the operation of an airport terminal is as much about managing information as it is about managing aircraft, passengers and cargo.
"Messages fly between air traffic control, airline systems, airport operators, handling agents, cleaning and catering services and so on," says Nick Gaines, head of IT for BAA, who is overseeing the technology installation at T5. "Historically these have been disparate standalone systems with unique interfaces created for each purpose. But for T5 we are looking to build a standard way for all these different systems to talk to each other."
Of the sizeable technology budget, some £70m will be spent on security applications and telecommunications – including the messaging hub – £100m on building and automation technology and around £30m on airport systems.
The remaining £50m was earmarked partly for technology to support the estimated 2,500 people on-site, but also for the development of a huge virtual model of the new terminal, which project partners can access online. The model will ensure that all stages of the construction process are implemented and managed in a coherent, collaborative and efficient manner.
CHECKS AND CHALLENGES
Currently Europe's largest construction project, and arguably the most technologically advanced, T5 has posed many challenges for Gaines and his team.
One of the key issues in choosing the systems to underpin T5's operation is finding the right technologies from the long-term operational perspective.
The technology that is installed and tested in the coming months must not only meet the highest standards now, it must enable the terminal to remain one of the most sophisticated in the world.
"There is a big issue of trying to guess what technology will be most useful in several years' time, following constant technological change. How we manage innovation and the risks associated with innovation is a difficult balance," says Gaines.
After all, technology does not stand still, and the airport has shown that it is willing to take a forward-looking approach to systems implementation in many areas. BAA has, for example, already been testing biometric security systems at Heathrow in the miSenseplus program, in which participants have detailed images of faces and eyes stored alongside fingerprint data.
Once this data has been stored, participants are given a membership card that enables them to benefit from fast-track immigration clearance. Biometrics is just one area where more technological advances are expected, and BAA wants to stay at the forefront of such developments.
The technology decisions made for T5 also have to be made in the context of the existing IT infrastructure at the airport's other terminals, to ensure that the airport operates as a synchronised, coordinated entity. The scale of the new terminal development alone is enormous, with technology playing a key role in so many functions. Taking into account the need to operate seamlessly with existing IT infrastructure adds a whole new level of complexity. When one looks at the physical elements that make up the core IT infrastructure, it is easy to see how this complexity could get out of hand.
T5's high-bandwidth network backbone alone requires some 2.5 million metres of cable, data LAN and security solutions. The advanced IP infrastructure will carry voice, data and operational systems, ranging from CCTV images to access control, building management and water control systems.
The communication network will be the bedrock on which the rest of the IT infrastructure is built. Nothing, therefore, can be left to chance, whether with the systems, the implementation or the choice of vendor.
To ensure that all eventualities were tested and evaluated before the implementation of any IT systems, part of the T5 project included the development of a testing centre, where every piece of technology can be put through its paces prior to installation, both in isolation and in concert with other IT elements.
PARTNERING FOR PROGRESS
NTL Business was among the first technology providers to begin installation work at T5, with the successful phased implementations in the energy centre and the Interface Test Facility (ITF). As the systems provider responsible for the foundation that underpins all communications and security at T5, its role has enormous value to the T5 project.
Development of the ITF was a crucial step that enabled partners such as NTL to begin work on the communications infrastructure of T5. The ITF includes a replica of the plan for the IP network, incorporating all the terminal's software and systems.
Working on that model, NTL could start to develop the network, benchmarking each element to provide a clear risk management profile and establish a proactive approach to problem solving that improves the efficiency of the implementation and limits the possibility of system errors.
Tony Harris, managing director of NTL Business, says: "T5 promises to be a world-class terminal and airport facility, which is visually stunning yet easy to use.
"NTL's involvement demonstrates its ability to deliver innovative and reliable communications to support one of the most strategic projects in the UK today.
"As a tier-one supplier for the T5 systems project, NTL is tasked with delivering the communications and security infrastructure within the terminal. Our project management and integration capabilities have enabled us to work ahead of schedule."
NTL's work will encompass many buildings. During 2006, it installed much of the technology linking two primary data centres and some 66 secondary communication centres, including the enormous network of fibre-optic cables. It brings to the project a wealth of experience, some of which has been gained by working with BAA on other airport projects.
At the start of the project Harris said: "NTL has been involved in projects at a number of BAA airports, including Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Southampton. Some members of the T5 team have also worked on the construction of the communications infrastructure at Chep Lap Kok, Hong Kong's international airport."
BAA is also working with other top-tier systems providers, including Arup, Ultra Electronics and Honeywell Building Solutions. In selecting these partners it had some very stringent criteria.
"Transforming a building into an airport terminal is all about technology," says Gaines. "T5 is one of the largest, most complex and exciting projects underway in Europe at present.
"When it is finished it will be a showcase for some of the most advanced technology in the world. Communications are fundamental for efficient and safe airport management, which is why BAA has selected the best partners and set them rigorous targets."
Together, BAA and its technology vendors have taken on one of the biggest IT challenges of the century so far, and Gaines' team has invested an extraordinary amount of time and patience in finding the best ways to coordinate their efforts.
While much ground remains to be covered, particularly as the intense period of testing begins, Gaines is confident that when T5 starts preliminary operations in 2008, ultimately ramping up to full operation by 2015, it will serve as an example to other airports around the world to follow in terms of its technological capability and efficiency of operation.
T5's IT infrastructure looks set to further strengthen Heathrow's presence in a rapidly evolving and highly competitive market. And the in-depth nature of the planning and partnering processes means that the terminal's IT will continue to boost the airport's profile well into the future.