Robotic Systems Join Workforce at Airports Around the Globe

Airports around the globe are turning to robotics and automated IoT technology to help facilitate a range of automated workforce tasks, including cleaning, parking, and baggage handling.

 

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Image credit: SoftBank Robotics

In 2018, U.S. airlines and foreign airlines serving the U.S. transported 1 billion passengers to their domestic and international travel destinations. The number of 2018 passengers was 4.8 percent higher than the previous year, and the numbers are expected to steadily increase for the next few years.

In response, more airports in the U.S. and around the globe are rapidly expanding. For example, New Orleans opened an entirely new, $1 billion, 35 gate terminal complex at its Louis Armstrong International Airport in 2019, and the San Jose International Airport expects to add six new gates and 11,000 parking spots. 

As airports face larger crowds and bigger footprints, they are turning to integrators who can provide automated and IoT technology solutions for a range of repetitive, mundane workforce tasks. Intelligent robotic technology in particular is proving to be useful, as robots are fast learners and cost-effective problem solvers for parking, cleaning, and surveillance tasks.

 

A Cleaning Wizard

At the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, Whiz, a vacuum jointly developed by ICE Robotics and SoftBank Robotics is an important part of the airport’s cleaning operations. Whiz brings to mind the BB-8 droid from Star Wars in stature, standing approximately 3 feet by 2 feet with zero-turn radius. The small and powerful commercial vacuum can clean areas up to 15,000 square feet for 3 hours on a single battery charge. 

During onboarding, human operators taught Whiz where to go by pushing it to define its routes. Whiz can store up to 600 routes in its BrainOS, providing everything it needs to know to navigate through the terminal and avoid obstacles. Also, in the BrainOS is an Intel® RealSense™ Depth Camera, part of a sensor suite that helps the robot better understand and perceive its environment. The camera helps the robot identify an obstacle and stop before a collision occurs. Operational data is stored in the cloud and human operators can view dashboards to review and analyze cleaning and status reports. This is all wrapped in an as-a-service model with a $499 monthly fee. 

In an article from Robotics and Automation News, Brian Cobb, chief innovation officer at the airport said, “Whiz is helping to bridge the gap between workforce recruitment challenges and the work that needs to be done.”

Whiz co-developer Softbank Robotics echoes the workforce needs, noting that building floor plans across commercial spaces are expected to increase 39 percent by 2050. With so much more space to clean and an increase of 200 percent in janitor turnover rates, industries of every type will need automated cleaning services from the likes of Whiz and ICE’s Emma, also powered by BrainOS.

Changi Airport Builds Automation Testbed in Terminal 4

The Singapore Changi Airport, Asia’s second busiest international airport, wants to test and develop automation as much as possible in its terminal 4 and make it a stepping stone to a fully automated terminal 5, which is expected to open sometime in the next decade. The airport’s goal is to implement solutions that manage higher volumes without adding significant manpower.  

Automation advancements are well underway in the in-flight kitchen and now the focus is on gateway services and ground handling for aircraft and baggage. Plans include autonomous aerobridges that align the plane doors and baggage bots that collect luggage from the plane and move it to baggage handling. Driverless vehicles are being tested to deliver food trolleys to lounges. 

Robots have also been seen patrolling the pickup areas at the airport. Peter, an orange-and-black robot owned by security provider Certis, flashes signs to drivers that they are in unauthorized curbside areas and reminds them to move to authorized waiting areas. In the trials, the three-foot-tall autonomous robo-cop is helping to streamline traffic flow, but not issuing tickets.   

Valet Parking by Stan

Self-driving robot valets are making smart decisions at parking lots in two French airports. Stan, developed by Stanley Robotics, was first introduced at the Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, where it is responsible for automating vehicle parking. Customers park in special hangars where the vehicles are scanned and make, model, travel return date are collected. Stan, a self-driving forklift, lifts the vehicles onto a mechanical bed and moves them to parking spaces based on when the owners will be returning to the airport. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image credit: Stanley Robotics

Stanley Robotics claims that Stan is much more efficient than humans, fitting 50 percent more vehicles into the same area. The improvement is partly due to precision driving and knowing the owners’ return dates. Using data analytics, Stan makes smart decisions about where to park vehicles for faster exits. 

The de Gaulle experience was so positive that Stan is now working at nearby Lyon-Saint-Exupery airport, where four autonomous robots work together on a 500-space parking lot. Soon, Stan will be joining the workforce at London’s Gatwick airport. 

All these innovations support the projected growth of airport robotics of 15% during 2019 to 2024. The market needs more providers and is ready for solutions in airport security, baggage systems, cleaning operations, passenger guidance, and more.