From coasting to booming:
Digital transformation and
the future of aviation

Roshan Popli
Chief Information Officer
Airports Authority of India

From coasting to booming: Digital transformation
and the future of aviation

Roshan Popli
Chief Information Officer at Airports Authority of India

When Roshan Popli became the Chief Information Officer of the Airports Authority of India in October 2019, he knew that he had a big, exciting job ahead. With extensive digital transformation projects like Digi Yatra and DigitalSky on the horizon, India’s aviation industry looked set for a thrilling new normal that would improve aviation for everybody.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic erupted. Vivek Sharma, the General Manager of Lenovo Infrastructure Solutions Group in India, sat down with Mr. Popli to discuss what it was like to face such a disruption as a new CIO, and what insights Mr. Popli has to share with others who find themselves managing the twin challenges of disruption and digital transformation in the future.

Reacting to the initial shock of disruption

“When you joined the Airports Authority of India, I’m sure there was a plan in place on what was to be done. But six months into your role, India was in lockdown. How did you manage such a major change and rally your team?” Mr Sharma asks.

“In the early days,” Mr. Popli says, “I was in the process of settling down in the role and had just completed the handover. There was a roadmap defined. We also had existing projects, some of them of very high visibility. For example, Digi Yatra, a facial biometric boarding system for domestic passengers and DigitalSky, a digital platform to enable drone ecosystem in India. The contracts for these projects were awarded before I had joined. The key focus was to complete these projects on time.

Then COVID happened. Everything went into lockdown. Our projects too slowed down. We had to re­-prioritize and our focus changed.”

“Our organization had a traditional working environment,” Mr. Popli shares, “which included physical files and in person meetings. Employees had workstations, but not everybody had laptops. Only a few people had access to secure remote working. The electronic filing system (eOffice) was implemented but was not used by all the employees, while usage of physical files was still prevalent.

“My team worked 24/7 for two months to ensure that everybody who was in need of digital assets got what they needed to keep us running and be productive,” Mr. Popli says. “We issued laptops, we ran security and eOffice trainings to enable the employees for remote working. Everybody adopted electronic filing; and today, the physical files have been completely replaced by digitized files. Everyone has video-conferencing training and licenses and this has become a chosen model and has replaced in-person meetings.”

When digital transformation has its own challenges

“Even before the pandemic,” Mr. Sharma points out, many CIOs reported that their organizations were involved in digital transformation, but they faced challenges like rigid structures or organizational resistance to change.”

Mr. Popli agrees that he has seen these challenges as well. The two large-scale aviation projects he has been involved with, DigitalSky (drone ecosystem) and Digi Yatra (Biometric Boarding System), are great examples. Aside from the pandemic, the ongoing challenges in these projects involved turnaround time, expectation management, accountability, collaboration between all stakeholders and timely delivery.

But these projects are vital for the future of the aviation industry in India. “With DigitalSky,” Mr. Popli explains, “we are creating an ecosystem for drones in India. DigitalSky platform is envisaged to provide features for bringing different stakeholders on the same platform so as to enable the registration of Manufacturers, Operators, Drones, flight planning and permissions for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), real time tracking of UAS, conflict management and flight log analysis to check for any deviation from the approved flight plans.” The project had been in beta testing for some time and has now gone live.”

Using cutting-edge Identity Management and Face recognition technologies, Digi Yatra aims to simplify the passenger processes at various check points in the airport right from the terminal entry gate, check-in/ bag drop to security check and boarding gates.

With Digi Yatra, passengers will no longer need to show their tickets/ boarding passes and their physical Identity cards at many of the check points at the airport. This will lead to reduced waiting time in queues, faster processing times and simpler processes along with enhanced security.

Digi Yatra is currently being implemented at Varanasi, Pune, Vijayawada and Kolkata Airports. Mr. Popli is very excited to share more news in the next few months as the project gets underway, and looking forward to air travelers experience its benefits.

Mr.Popli also cites the importance of getting the commitment of senior management for the success of the digital initiatives. It helps to reduce resistance to change and encourage teams to share information and work together.

The benefits of conquering disruption and transformation

Before COVID, Mr. Sharma was on a flight every week. Then for 11 months, he didn’t fly at all. “So these projects, especially facial recognition and identification with Digi Yatra, I’m very interested to see how they will work. For frequent travelers, cutting waiting times can offer big comfort,” says Mr. Sharma

“From a technical perspective,” Mr. Sharma continues, “the airports industry is an interesting discussion of the benefits of cloud and edge computing.”

Mr Popli said that unlike in cloud computing, where the data is processed in remote data centers, edge computing gives devices the ability to carry out some or all of the data processing right then and there, at the point at which the data is collected.

He added, “a typical use case for the airports could be processing and storage of the data generated during off hours by various security cameras installed at the airport premises. There is a possibility that majority of the video footage showing empty areas might be generated during this time. Sending all of that data, which may have no value, is a waste of bandwidth. Here, an edge computing device, which has the ability to analyze images, would be able to detect activity and prioritize that data to be sent over the network for storage/processing.”

In Digi Yatra, there is a direction to use the passenger’s mobile phone as an edge device. The verification and subsequent registration to Digi Yatra program will happen on the mobile device of the passenger. The verified facial biometrics will be stored on the mobile and the passenger can share the verified facial biometrics over the network to the respective airport system when he/she travels.

Mr. Popli foresees more benefits to digital transformations in airports. “Nowadays, It’s about touchless, contactless operation. In the current pandemic, this is a key ask from the passengers at the airport. We are seeing many changes around with majority of passengers checking themselves in and coming with their own printed or electronic boarding passes. We’ve put cameras and scanners in place for implementing a touchless environment. This touchless method of operation will not be going away. In fact, I believe we’ll only get better at it as time goes on. Perhaps soon, passengers will not even have to interact with a check-in or a registration kiosk, but travel better by accessing the Ul on their mobile devices.”

The rate at which change is coming now is unprecedented, in technology and in our lifestyles. As we come to the new normal of 2021 and beyond, as we see passengers returning to aviation, it will be interesting to witness and make use of all the changes and learnings the aviation industry has in store.

Roshan Popli
Chief Information Officer
Airports Authority of India

Information Technology professional with over twenty-five years of experience in driving Account strategy, managing operations, building high-performance delivery teams and competencies in IT services organizations.