by Edward Qualtrough

Gatwick Airport CIO Cal Corcoran interview – Delivering Internet of Things at scale

Jul 24, 2018
Networking DevicesTransportation and Logistics Industry

Gatwick CIO Cal Corcoran believes the organisation is developing the platform to deliver the “Internet of Things at scale” to improve the passenger experience and operational efficiency at the UK’s second largest airport.

The former CIO of BP’s oils and lubricants company Castrol, Corcoran was speaking to CIO UK at Aruba Network’s Atmosphere event in Croatia where he described the airport’s journey to upgrade its faltering campus WiFi network after joining the organisation as CIO in May 2016.

Corcoran said that the new networking infrastructure and relationships with HPE and Aruba were underpinning transformation initiatives, and would support the deployment of emerging disruptive technologies at the airport.

“Gatwick is critical national infrastructure,” he said. “It’s a 24 by seven operation; it has to run. If it doesn’t run, lives are impacted. Planes don’t fly, bags don’t move, passengers don’t move. Because we are critical national infrastructure, if something goes wrong at an airport you end up on BBC or Sky News pretty quickly.

“But over and above that, the new campus network allows us to get after newer technologies and newer benefits, so things like sensors and IoT at scale.”

Corcoran recalled walking in on his first day in Sussex to a situation where the network had been down 24 times in the previous 24 hours. With more than 6,000 bags and 2,500 passengers not making it onto planes, the CIO quipped that “it didn’t take me very long to figure out where I needed to start”.

He added that being on an innovation curve that helped future-proof to airport, at least as much as Gatwick’s strategic partners could, was a boon to the relationship with Aruba.

“I became a big customer and a big fan of HPE Aruba very quickly,” he said. “Our journey has been end to end, so we had HPE support our legacy network and help us move to the new network.

“It’s been an amazing journey. We’ve done it in about 18 months – most other airports would take somewhere in the region of three to four years to do that kind of journey.

“We’ve gone from one of the worst airport WiFi providers in Europe to one of the best. And there are use cases we can’t even see at this point so it was important for me choosing Aruba and choosing HPE that we have the latest and greatest.

“It was important for me to know that the engineering hours were going in, the innovation levels were going in; to know that it was future-proofed as much as possible in terms of use cases I couldn’t even see at this point in time.”

Startups and vendor relations

Gatwick uses a number of other avenues as part of its innovation agenda including startup accelerators and Founders Factory, Corcoran said at a recent Forbes CIO Summit, and that the key to digital innovation was giving smart people the space and resources to try new things rather than thinking large business problems can be solved in a 24-hour hackathon.

Corcoran said that fundamentally CIOs and their strategic technology providers needed to communicate about their shared goals rather than having a transactional relationship and reverting to a contract whenever things did not go to plan.

“The biggest thing for me is for it to feel and act like partnership,” Corcoran said. “That’s a word that’s kind of thrown around a lot and used a bit flippantly, but with the relationship that we have with HPE and with Aruba, it really does feel like partnership. We’re in it together. There’s been good days. There’s been bad days, and they’ve been side by side through us in this journey.

“They took on what was a very ambitious project. They took on an ambitious risk profile and an ambitious timeline. They delivered on their commitment. They delivered on time to quality, to cost. They never waved the contract at me. They were always flexible, adaptable, good communication both ways.

“It didn’t feel like a supplier-to-client relationship. It always felt like partnership, and that’s very important, particularly if you’re in it for the long run, if you’re in it for kind of a five-year-plus kind of gig.”

IoT at scale and drones for good

Corcoran described IoT at scale as using sensors to monitor absolutely everything at the airport, from pond and bin levels to baggage trolleys and buggies for travellers with reduced mobility.

“The whole reason we are putting these sensors on is to try and improve either the passenger experience as it relates to planes landing on time, taking off on time, dealing with disruption – making the movement through the airport a more enjoyable one,” he said.

The concept of drones for good is also on the airport’s agenda, and how they can make use of the technology which has somewhat negative connotations when discussed in the context of airports.

“How do we use drone technology to protect the perimeter of the airport? How do we use drone technology to inspect the runway for cracks? How do we use drone technology to inspect buildings? But then also drones can be a nuisance, so we’re looking at technologies that will detect and deter drones from entering into the airspace if they’re not meant to be there,” Corcoran said.


The CIO outlined how Gatwick was the world’s most efficient single runway airport in the world with 950 planes taking off and landing each day at a rate of 55 per hour. Processing 46 million passengers each year, most through security in less than five minutes according to Corcoran, he said that the airport “does more with biometrics than most military-grade organisations – we know a lot about iris recognition”.

While many people might think of an airport primarily as just about the airfield, Corcoran said, there are also the business challenges of running a major shopping, construction site and Smart City, and supporting the myriad of organisations on the site.

“We sell IT services to them so it’s not just IT services for Gatwick Limited, it’s services for pretty much everyone on the airport,” he said. “That’s 200-plus businesses that operate at Gatwick and about 30,000 people who come to work at Gatwick every day.”

With security an increasing threat, Corcoran said that he was confident in the airport’s technical defences. The CIO said at the Forbes event that he has adopted a ‘Noah’s Ark principle’ at Gatwick – a two-by-two strategy with two flavours of firewall, network security and every other technology, quipping “I double up on everything and that’s what allows me to sleep at night”.

It was however the combination of people, technology and physical security that provides the biggest concern.

“I’ve got 46 million passengers that go through the airport,” he said. “If you buy a cheap ticket, that gets you airside and that airport is a great place to dwell for a few hours. You can hang around and nobody’s going to say anything to you, so I think about cyber and with the CISO that reports into me at Gatwick I worry about cyber.

“I worry less about the technical threats, and the spotty 16-year-old in their back bedroom somewhere – we have very good technical defences and very good process defences. I worry more about the combination of social engineering and technology engineering. So somebody willing to physically come on site, present themselves as an employee or passenger, who are very technically savvy. I worry about that more than I do about the person who’s going to sit in their bedroom wherever it is.”

CIO networking

Corcoran said that at events like Aruba’s Atmosphere conference – aside from any speaking responsibilities – networking with CIOs from other sectors, gaining some new insights about technologies and vendors, as well as making new contacts was what made such events and trips fruitful.

“My target is always one, but if I can get more than that, great,” he said. “If I can glean one connection or one recommendation or one nugget of new intel from any of these conferences, then that for me is sufficient.

“Quite often, it may come out of the presentations. It may come out of a bar conversation. It doesn’t matter where it comes from as long as you gain that one piece of insight or someone recommends a vendor, or someone recommends an individual or a company, an integrator.

“There’s value to be gained in that, just the comparing and contrasting of notes with peers. Airports are many things. An airport is an airport, but it’s also a building site. It’s also a shopping mall. It’s also a Smart City. So comparing notes with CIOs who are running cities, running buildings, running construction companies is equally interesting to me as it is talking to CIOs of other airports or airlines.”

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