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Bladerunner and biometrics: Heathrow T5 unveiled

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I felt like Charlie must have done when he glimpsed gold in the Wonka Bar, as I opened my email to see that The Register wanted me to go on an exclusive guided tour of Heathrow's Terminal 5.

I'd read a lot about it in the press. It is a "building for a new age" and the public has been clamouring to get into it for years.

A team of BAA and BA executive directors accompanied a handful of journalists and me around the building. The secret to Terminal 5, they told us, is that it will treat human beings "like human beings".

That's impressive because Terminal 5 isn't a person. It's a building.

It took five years for Terminal 5 to emerge from the sewage works, enabling designers to sew advanced technology into its neural structures. The result, in the words of BA Terminal 5 Programme Head, Glenn Morgan, is an "intelligent building". Over the years the building has been programmed to understand how human beings work and how it should respond to them. It knows where vehicles, personnel, bags and travellers are and what dodgy substances look like (using top secret algorithms). Its vast array of information collection points enable it to tell passengers, BAA and BA employees what to do and where to go. The function of passenger interfaces can mutate in accordance with changing needs, and even the advertising is strategically manipulated to ensure it operates on the human mind to maximum effect.

Buried in the bowels of the terminal is an 18-kilometre network of baggage conveyor belts. The technology behind it is so impressive that Jonathan Adams, BAA Head of IT programme management and head honcho of the baggage system, is confident he can “get the bags to their destination before the people”. The baggage has undergone several tests using thousands of suitcases. (They are unable to tell us how they came by such a huge number of tattered-looking used suitcases, but they assured us this was unconnected to scores of lost baggage scandals at Heathrow's other terminals.) The principal challenge to the system's smooth operation, he has discovered, is not the software "but bag straps". With bags travelling at speeds of up to 30mph around the airport, humans are advised to stay well out of the way.

BAA ditches the old baggage

"We've had to bear in mind," one of the team explained (as if this were a fact they'd had to keep reminding each other of throughout the airport's incubation period), "that processes are used by people and we've needed to think how people work."

"Are those sofas?" I had to ask the design enthusiast whisking us through the sunlit and spacious departure lounge towards the first class area, as the other executives quietly filled us in on the technical make-up of the building's brain.

"Yes," he said, darting his eyes over at the red abstract shapes curved haphazardly around the traditional blocks of single seat rows. "We have a number of rest areas."

Beautiful to look at, but you'd be hard-pushed to lie down on any of them. Still, napping isn't really what BAA wants humans to do in the time the new security regime requires them to be in the lounge. Or, as one BAA executive put it: "This airport has cost us over £4bn - we'd like to make that money back."

Perhaps this explains why the first class lounge takes pride of place in our tour of the human interface of Terminal 5. It is a dream come true for the non-smoking hedonist of the future: personally-designed spa treatments, conference facilities, computers, champagne and diamonds. Travelling with children? The walls of the double-glazed play area are magnetised - you can wrap them in a belt with a bit of metal in it and peg them up. The building can keep an eye on them.

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Next page: Stitched up

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