Facial Recognition Helps Singapore Airport Find Missing Passengers

The new facial recognition system at the Changi Airport can sift through 1.8 billion faces in just 3 seconds.
Shelby Rogers

For any traveler, getting lost in a dizzying maze of airport terminals can quickly lead to delays or even missed flights. At Singapore's Changi airport, new technology is being tested that could reduce the number of people lost in a sprawling airport or spending too much time at the shops. 

Developers at the Changi Airport -- known internationally as one of the best airports on Earth -- created a facial recognition software that would use the cameras mounted on lampposts throughout the airport. The software would use the footage from the cameras to track particular faces registered to a database. 

Steve Lee serves as Changi Airport Group's chief information officer. He told Reuters that the project doesn't come from a need to be "Big Brother" but to boost the safety and security of any traveler that uses the airport. 

"We have lots of reports of lost passengers...so one possible use case we can think of is, we need to detect and find people who are on the flight. Of course, with permission from the airlines," said Lee.

The whole project comes at a time when Singapore's tech leadership pushes a 'smart nation' initiative, looking for ways to use emerging technologies to improve everyday activities and events. 

"You can’t say you are a smart nation when you come to the airport and it’s not so smart," Lee said.

Lee told Reuters the technology has already been tested and proven successful in identifying people in crowds. He also noted that there are businesses associated with the airport willing to cooperate on the project. One of those businesses is the Chinese firm Yitu, which confirmed to Reuters that it was, in fact, in discussions with the Changi Airport Group. Yitu said the facial recognition platform can quickly identify over 1.8 billion faces in less than 3 seconds. 

Nearly 10 million people fly each day around the world, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Those numbers are expected to increase as flights continue to become cheaper and airlines more efficient in their pricing policies. With a growing number of passengers will come a growing need for efficiency. That efficiency, according to Lee, can be greatly improved through the new technology. 

In fact, one terminal in Changi already uses facial recognition technology to streamline operations. The T4 terminal (Changi's newest terminal) uses facial recognition tech to provide self-service operations for check-in, baggage drop-off, immigration, and boarding. The DIY approach has drastically reduced wait times and line sizes, Lee noted. 

For example, luggage drop-off in T4 allows customers to drop bags off at unmanned booths where an imaging system takes a customer's picture and compares it to a passport. A second picture is then taken at an automated security gate at the immigration check, and that picture then verifies a customer's identity at the boarding gate.