AeroCloud Systems CEO George Richardson tells Tara Craig how AI and machine learning can help airports raise their game
What is your take on today's airports sector, post-COVID?
Obviously, all airports globally had to do the best that they could in line with the guidance and/or restrictions in their specific regions, so to say one region recovered better than another would be subjective. But purely from a commercial perspective, airports in the North American market were in a more advantageous position as, despite the tighter restrictions on international passengers, the domestic flights still gave them the opportunity to continue operating and they didn't lay off staff like airports did in Europe and APAC, so were commercially in a much better position post-COVID-19.
Now international travel is returning, airports worldwide are struggling to adjust to heightened demand as they navigate the challenges of staff shortages and a lack of investment due to debt incurred during the pandemic. They must invest in solutions that will enable them to make greater operational efficiencies, improve the passenger experience and boost revenue in the long term.
How can airports best harness IT?
Small to mid-sized airports often use manual processes to monitor vital information. This is slow and can deliver inaccurate information to the airport operation and management systems – skewing predictions and planning decisions. Manual processes also don’t give a centralised, real-time view of what’s happening across the airport, leaving any stakeholders in the dark about the current state of play beyond periodic reports. Decision-making will be made in silo, not necessarily delivering the optimum outcome.
Airports need to become data driven, so that data is in the hands of all relevant parties for real-time decision-making based on accurate insights. When AI and machine learning are added to the mix, airports can use this data to identify trends, draw lessons and predict future scenarios to inform more accurate decision-making and long-term planning.
Tell me about AeroCloud.
I founded AeroCloud with Ian Forde-Smith, our CTO, in Macclesfield in 2019. Ian had come from a long career of working with airports and I was in the process of retiring after ten years in motor racing and looking for an ‘old lock, new key’ style of company. After a couple of years devising potential business ideas, AeroCloud was born – an intelligent software-as-a-service (SaaS) airport management platform that allows executives and operational teams to make data-driven decisions to solve the complex challenges they face every day. In less than three years, we have partnered with 44 customers in the UK, Europe and US, with our software processing more than 150+ million passengers annually.
Our mission is to be the largest provider of operation automation software for the small to medium-sized airport market globally
AeroCloud’s cloud-native platform uses AI and ML to power airport operations
Is there anything you would have done differently?
There are a few things, and lessons I would give to my younger self. First, it's all about the people. As you progress post-seed funding and go on a scaling journey into Series A, the 'levelling up' process of various departments can cause a lot of friction, so you need to prepare yourself to have difficult conversations about scaling up early. Be open, honest and remain focused.
Second, at times it's crucial to remain laser-focused and not let some of the challenges of building a business distract you from the ultimate goal(s). I now like to resettle myself every month on our core principles. Setting yourself objectives and maturing the operation’s function early on will enable you to focus on what you're good at.
Who or what inspires you?
Thought Machine inspires me, as its initial journey was very similar to AeroCloud's. It was trying to do something that was perceived as impossible and convince huge enterprise clients to go through a massive change of technology and move to the cloud in a very legacy-intensive industry. Our competitors also inspire me. We like to treat them with respect, but at the same time have total clarity on how to beat them.
The growth and success of AeroCloud will always be underpinned by finding the best people possible – those who are passionate about change, that share our company values and are committed to achieving the best performance as a team. A key focus for us in the last year has been hiring into our senior leadership team.
Tell me about the current AeroCloud portfolio
AeroCloud is the only cloud-native intelligent airport management platform on the market. It enables everything from faster passenger processing times to increased communication between stakeholders to deal with real-time fluctuations in processes to ensure that airports work better and communicate with customers.
When we first launched, we had great success penetrating the US market with our proposition of offering airports a cloud-based environment to become more data-driven, rather than relying on manual data management processes for airport management, like Excel.
For us to penetrate the European market successfully, though, we knew we had to tap into what airports in the region wanted – and that centres around common use passenger processing, self-check-in and self-bag-drop. That’s why we acquired Flight Solutions in August 2022, a company well regarded in the region for its passenger processing technology. We can now offer airports a comprehensive one-stop solution for all their data and passenger journey needs.
When we work with customers, we encourage them to tell our product team the problems they face and then collaborate with them on fixing them
The platform is easy-to-use, scalable, and can be accessed anywhere on any device
Tell me about AeroCloud Optic
We launched AeroCloud Optic, an industry first, in March 2023. For decades, airports have trialled technologies such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and Lidar to solve the issue of kerb-to-gate insights. However, AeroCloud Optic is the first technology capable of intelligently, anonymously and accurately tracking passengers through the entire process – from arrival to security and departures to boarding an aircraft. Our AI algorithm is the only one on the market that can re-identify passengers along their journey.
The real-time monitoring of passengers triggers alerts in response to operational bottlenecks such as extended wait times at security, which can then be immediately addressed. The AI and machine learning algorithms also enable airport staff to identify trends and predict future scenarios to inform more accurate decision-making and long-term planning. This enables better resource management and enhanced retail opportunities for concession partners.
When we work with customers, we encourage them to tell our product team the problems they face and then collaborate with them on fixing them. This is how we worked with Liverpool John Lennon Airport when trialling AeroCloud Optic. Paul Staples, the airport’s operations director, has described the technology as the 'holy grail' of commercial activity, having battled for a decade to accurately track how passengers move through the terminal.
Paul Staples described AeroCloud Optic as the ‘holy grail’ of commercial activity
How do you ensure data collected remains private?
We take security very seriously at AeroCloud. We design and engineer all our software and platforms accordingly. We work with third-party specialist security companies to ensure we maintain our standards and continue to protect what we treasure the most – our customers’ integrity and data.
Our computer vision technology, AeroCloud Optic, uses airports’ existing CCTV infrastructure to provide aggregated, anonymised data on the flow of passengers through different zones of the airport in a GDPR-compliant way. It doesn’t collect or store data at an individual level.
What next for AeroCloud Systems?
Our mission is to be the largest provider of operation automation software for the small to medium-sized airport market globally. Through our Series A funding we plan to deliver on our bold ambitions to expand our business and continue to displace our competitors in both the United States and Europe. We’re also focused on employing skilled and highly driven people who want to help AeroCloud to change the sector, and are recruiting in the UK and the US.