Bright future for smart glass in airports

Memphis International Airport has recently installed smart windows as part of the airport’s modernisation programme, which aims to enhance passenger experience and improve energy efficiency. Frankie Youd speaks to View Inc, the firm behind the smart windows, to find out more.

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Memphis International Airport is the primary international airport serving Memphis, Tennessee. Covering 3,900 acres and including eight runways, the airport is one of the busiest in the country. As part of the airport’s multiphase capital improvement plan, Memphis International is hoping to modernise and consolidate airline and retail operations as well as remodelling higher ceilings and larger gate areas.

As part of this plan, smart windows created by View Inc – a glass manufacturing company that produces smart glass – have been installed, which utilise AI to optimise the amount of natural light that enters the terminal and control heat and glare.

We speak to Kristi Crase, strategy director of aviation at View Inc, to find out how this technology works as well as how the inclusion of the glass has benefitted other airport locations.

Frankie Youd: Could you provide an outline on the smart windows and the technology that they use?

Kristi Crase: Typically, the intent of these windows is to open up the views, bring in the maximum amount of natural light, and protect the ability for passengers to see out of the windows at all times. Additionally, they reduce glare and heat, so we’re providing the airport with a very sustainable solution. 

Smart glass is also called electrochromic glass, or dynamic glass. It is a nanotechnology metal oxide coating that goes on the inside layer of a double-pane window. It’s traditional glass with this coating. When you run electricity through it the windows tint.

How we approach it is we have a predictive algorithm, it’s a software-driven system that looks at the orientation of the sun, the orientation of the building, the building occupancy use – what’s happening inside the building – how are things laid out, and the current weather conditions.

We marry all those concepts together and provide a predictive algorithm that allows the windows to tint in front of a glare event.

We do this in a way that’s customisable to the building and customisable to how they want to utilise it. It’s something that can be changed if they have a situation where they need to take the windows down or lighten up the windows for any reason – they can do that at any time. It’s also set on an operational system so that they don’t have to think about it from an operational perspective either.

How did the project at Memphis International Airport come about?

Memphis was very smart at how it was approaching this project. The airport had a number of guiding principles that it was looking to achieve – primarily connecting, transforming, and inspiring. It recognised early on that the relationship of the passenger experience is going to be important to the success of the project. The airport was seeking different technologies that could inform a better passenger experience.

What I think has been a real benefit for Memphis is that since the pandemic hit, there’s been a change in aviation travel. There used to be a heavy mix of both leisure and business travel. 

Now, some of the business travel has dropped off or levelled out, and we’ve seen a lot more leisure travel – especially this year. That increase in leisure travel is seeing airports focus more heavily on passenger experience, so this is a huge benefit for Memphis because the airport was able to plan this in advance.

How do the windows optimise the amount of natural light that is let in?

When we say optimising the amount of natural light, we use the algorithm that says we’re going to leave these windows un-tinted and as clear as possible so they’re bringing in the maximum amount of natural light.

You only tint when there’s the potential for glare to come in to cause discomfort or for the heat to rise. It’s kind of that tap dance of only tinting when you need it, but bringing it up so that it’s as bright in natural light as possible.

We’re trying to connect people to the outdoors. People like to be connected to light. There’s been a lot of studies carried out exploring what natural light does to productivity and the health benefits. That’s the idea of optimising the space so that you have a light, bright, airy space but without the impacts of the glare.

Does the glass offer any sustainability benefits?

There’s definitely a sustainability side to this, it does provide an annual reduction in airport’s energy costs – the windows are very efficient. They provide some operational efficiencies for airports in that regard. 

We also have a family of environmental sensors that work off the same control system that our glass does. The sensors monitor light and views, air quality, sound levels, and thermal health, providing actionable data that the airport can use to improve building performance and enhance the quality and comfort of the space.

How does the glass impact the passenger’s retail experience?

We have done studies on that, one specifically looking at passenger comfort at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. In 2017, the airport decided that it wanted to specifically study the impacts of smart glass on passenger comfort and revenue.

Glass was installed in one of the gate areas, and a gate area right next to it was used as a control gate. A small bar and grill was also outfitted with east-facing facades – at the time it was an underperforming restaurant. There were no other additional changes, the airport wanted to see the impact of putting in the smart glass.

At the restaurant – which was the revenue study – they saw a 102% increase in their revenue just by installing the glass. That has continued, so it wasn’t a blip on the radar – it’s a statistic that has stayed with them.

There was a 15-degree reduction in temperature in both the restaurant and the gate area, and there was an 83% increase in dwell time. There was the ability to maximise their seating space in both the restaurant and the gate area because they can have seating right up against the glass, without any discomfort or glare.

Another study that we did was at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. It wanted to specifically look at passenger experience and the impact of smart glass on the airport’s five-star ratings. It looked at gate areas that had our smart glass and control gates that did not.

There was a 15-degree reduction in temperature in the gate areas, and the airport found that the relationship between daylight comfort in the gate area with the views had a positive impact on the five-star rating.

That also translated into a revenue component. When the airport looked at a study that Airports Council International did on the impact of increasing passenger experience to what the impact is on revenue, it found that for every 1% increase in passenger experience, you can anticipate a 1.5% increase in their spend in non-aeronautical spend. For Charlotte Douglas, it increased passenger ratings by 9%, which equated to a 13% increase in overall revenue.

We also found a lot of people are asking for the smart glass in retail spaces. We’ve had several concessions come to us and say their chocolates are melting, or alcohol bottle labels are fading, and it’s impacting their stock. We’ve done some implementations, specifically in airport concession areas, just to protect their space.

What benefits can the glass bring to building design?

The main components of the glass are really beneficial, they allow you to future proof your building. If you build a building, it’s going to be there for 30-50 years, you’re going to put in glass, it’s something that you’re going to have to live with. This type of technology allows you to future proof your building. You’re wiring the skin of your building, you’re electrifying the skin of your building to add additional applications.

Our system that powers the glass allows for the addition of IoT (Internet of Things) and third-party devices. It provides added value to grow and expand, as you need to, from a building perspective.

You’re modernising, future-proofing, and providing value to all the occupants inside of the space, now and in the future. You’re reducing the impact on the environment by reducing costs and reducing the energy needed to operate a building by having a device like this.