Dubai: In 1960, Dubai Airport was just a single runway of compacted sand, three turning areas, an apron and a modest terminal.
Three years later, an asphalt runway was added, as were new hangars and navigational aids, prompting the arrival of international airlines.
Fast forward to the present and Dubai is a gleaming metropolis with a state-of-the-art international airport of three terminals, making it the busiest in the world in terms of international traffic. From the introduction of e-cards in 2002 and the UAE Wallet in 2017 to the smart tunnel in 2018 and biometrics now, Dubai Airport’s smart journey has made remarkable progress. The airport is now trying out a paper-free experiment, which means no more passports or boarding passes will be required with the traveller’s face serving the purpose.
The General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs in Dubai (GDRFA) utilises the latest biometric technology — a mix of facial and iris recognition — so passengers can check in for their flight, complete immigration formalities, enter the Emirates lounge and board their flights, simply by strolling through the airport.
Major General Mohammed Ahmed Al Marri, director (GDRFA), Dubai, said the new system is a step into the future of travelling as mobilising the biometric path for a seamless journey will cut time and effort for travellers. “All these initiatives are in line with the government’s vision to be a world leader in innovation and public services. It will ultimately improve the traveller experience at the airport, and enhance the efficiency of our operations,” Maj Gen Al Marri said.
Here is a look at how Dubai Airport has become smarter over the years:
E-gate and e-Card
The first e-gate was introduced on August 11, 2002, by Shaikh Ahmad Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of Dubai Civil Aviation and Chairman and Chief Executive of Emirates airline and Group.
Emiratis, GCC nationals and residents and citizens of the 33 countries that were allowed entry without visas and could clear their passenger data at Dubai International Airport’s departure and arrival terminals by swiping smart cards through special electronic gates. They did not have to use their passports.
Developed by GDRFA-Dubai in association with the Department of Civil Aviation, the four e-gates, two each at the arrival and departure terminals, enable passengers to quickly process their data without wasting time at counters. The e-gates have been available alongside conventional gates.
First generation of smart gates
Phase one: In July 2016, travellers could walk through the smart gates by either using their biometric passport or Emirates ID. Emiratis and residents used their IDs to cross the gates in seconds by placing the ID in a slot, scan their passport and use their fingerprint to open the gates.
In June 2017, Dubai announced that passengers departing from Dubai International Airport could use their smart phones at the smart gates instead of their passports as part of a new service called Smart UAE Wallet. The new facility reduced departure clearance time to 15 seconds per passenger.
The UAE Wallet app was first used in Terminal 3 before making it operational in all terminals after the wallet was linked with other airlines. Users could register for the UAE wallet any time before their travel day. After registering, users could present required travel machine-readable bar codes generated within the UAE Wallet app to access airport gates.
New generation of smart gates
By September 2017, 25 new-generation smart gates were installed at Terminal 3 to speed up passengers’ movement. Travellers were using their passport and Emirates ID to walk through the smart gates without need of intervention from passport control officials.
By scanning the passport and boarding pass or by using Emirates ID, passengers were crossing the passport control zone in a few seconds without the need to stand in queues to get the passport stamped. The “biometric border” walkway takes a 3D scan of people’s faces as they enter the airport and checks it against a digital passport using face-recognition software.
The digital passport, created for the system contains information from the electronic chip in physical passports, as well as additional details, including fingerprints, iris scans and face-recognition data. By 2020, there were 122 smart gates at all terminals of Dubai Airports.
In October 2018, GDRFA-Dubai launched the pilot phase of Smart Tunnel at Dubai Airports’ Terminal 3 to enable Emirates passengers to finish passport control procedures in less than 15 seconds. The initiative, a first of its kind in the world, is currently available to first and business class travellers of Emirates.
As per the new system, the traveller simply has to walk through the tunnel and look at the camera, equipped with biometric recognition technology. The Smart Tunnel assesses passengers’ data accurately using machine learning in order to facilitate and accelerate the process of transit through Dubai Airports without the need to use any travel documents or boarding card as in the use of “smart gates”.
The tunnel working hand in hand with the smart gates, is equipped with latest face-recognition software that allow residents to use their Emirates ID or registered passports to get through without encounters with passport control officers.
Steps involved in the smart tunnel
Register your information at the counter or through the two registration kiosks placed before passport control section of Dubai Airports. Smart gates users are automatically eligible to use the tunnel.
Once eligible and registered passengers will receive a smart board on their boarding card.
As you walk through inside the tunnel, look at the camera, equipped with smart biometric recognition technologies.
Once cleared, you’re ready to leave the country without encountering passport control officers.
Biometric Passenger Journey
In February 2021, GDRFA-Dubai launched a new project called ‘Biometric Passenger Journey’ in cooperation with Emirates. The new project has been launched at Dubai International Airport to create a contact-free travel journey and to cut down on queues in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 122 smart gates were updated for passengers to either use their Emirates ID to pass the gates or by just showing their faces.
The new touchpoints, which are now open for Emirates passengers travelling through and from Dubai, allow them to check in, cross the passport control zone and board flights without coming in contact with the airline staff. The smart gates allow passengers to walk through between five to nine seconds only based on the passenger’s movement and steps to finish the procedures.
How the technology works
* As arriving to Dubai International Airport, passengers need to register at Emirates check-in.
* Facial and iris recognition will register the passenger in the biometric system for the first time.
* After being registered, passenger can walk through the smart gates.
* Passengers need to keep the passport in their pockets, show their faces and look into the green dot at the camera to open the smart gate.
* Passengers can use the same mechanism at the boarding gates without need to show their travel documents.
* Business class passengers can use the smart gates at Emirates business lounge without need to show their boarding pass.
What comes next?
Smart cities, smart airports: These are buzzwords that we’re hearing more and more. It’s clear that technology is changing how we design and operate airports, and it’s clear that tech is transforming the passenger experience.
Maj Gen Al Marri said that his department will adopt more innovative ways in the new smart projects in line with the directions of UAE leaders to enhance the use of technology to develop the lifestyle for residents and visitors.
“We provided vital and Artificial Intelligence systems to provide smart services for the customers during the department’s journey in developing its services. The latest smart service of using a mix of facial and iris recognition for travellers came after intensive studies and teamwork on the project,” Maj Gen Al Marri said.
The innovation journey will never stop and Dubai will always amaze the world with the future plans to transform the city to the next level of automated city, he added.