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What Are the Best Use Cases for Airport Robotics?

Emily Newton is a technology journalist. She is Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, an online magazine exploring the latest innovations.

Getting on a flight from almost anywhere in the world is getting more complex every day. Tired travellers are facing cancelled flights, lost luggage and more as they struggle to get to their destinations. Between pandemic-related problems and growing staffing shortages, airlines are having trouble keeping their facilities staffed.

One potential solution could be to adopt robotics in customer-facing operations. Robots provide many benefits to passengers and airport staff alike. What are the best use cases for airport robotics moving forward?

Check-In and Flight Information

The check-in process is relatively straightforward for most travellers, but sometimes a bit of extra assistance might be necessary to ensure it proceeds without issues. Robotics could help fill in some gaps caused by staffing problems many airports are currently experiencing.

Airport robotics check-ins, paired with a basic call-and-response AI system known as interactive voice response (IVR), could walk even the least tech-savvy passenger through their check-in process and get them to their assigned terminal. If the problem proves too complex for the AI system to handle, it could quickly direct the traveller to a staffed counter.

Most travel check-ins go off without a hitch, so relegating some of the more straightforward tasks to IVR systems could free human workers to handle the more challenging problems. These robotic check-in clerks don’t even need a full counter, freeing up space and helping designers make the most of the available square footage.

Tech startup BotsAndUs has provided a pair of waist-high robots to Heathrow Airport that can communicate with passengers in many different languages. They can provide them with real-time flight information via a verbal command.

These bots can also direct passengers to different facilities within the airport, from service desks and check-in counters to oversized luggage scales or cafes where they can get a snack while they wait.

Food Order Deliveries

Is it really a trip to an airport without paying for some massively overpriced fast food? Instead of waiting at the restaurant for food delivery — and potentially missing a flight — Philadelphia International Airport has a solution: Gita. Gita is a 26-inch tall robot that traverses the entire airport terminal, delivering food to passengers as they wait in lounges throughout the facility.

Gita is the brainchild of AtYourGate, an app and app developer designed specifically for airport food deliveries, and Piaggio Fast Forward, a tech startup and robotics development company.

The airport already has an app that offers contactless ordering options. Gita can now deliver those orders autonomously. Travellers never have to worry about getting bumped in the shins by the robot as it does its job. Gita is programmed to navigate the airport with “human-like etiquette.” Hopefully, that doesn’t mean the kind of etiquette — or lack thereof — that most airport visitors are accustomed to, especially when dealing with grumpy or over-tired travellers.

Security Checks

When it comes to airport security, most people picture uniformed TSA agents and well-trained drug or bomb-sniffing dogs. While they still have a place in protecting airport security, they aren’t the only tools available working to keep passengers safe as they travel.

The Hamad International Airport in Qatar uses a security robot with various sensors. It can detect a traveller’s heart rate, stress levels and body temperature to detect if the individual is anxious or agitated — beyond what might be considered normal for someone worried about whether they’re going to miss their flight.

The robot can detect fake credit cards or counterfeit currency and even conduct facial recognition scans to ensure a passenger’s ID matches their ticket. The Qatar Department of the Interior developed this robot in collaboration with Lekwiya — an internal security and special operations unit — and it does not appear to be available for other commercial applications.

The Hamad International Airport introduced its first security robot in 2018. Since then, it’s also implemented an advanced algorithmic system that allows it to quickly detect any dangerous or explosive materials within a passenger’s luggage. The ECAC C2 Standard was premiered by tech startup Analogic in 2017 and is beginning to find a niche in both domestic and international airports.

In addition to preventing these hazardous substances from making their way onto the plane, this system allows passengers to keep their electronic devices, such as phones and laptops, in their carry-on luggage during the security screening process. This, in turn, reduces queuing time and keeps people from being in an airport terminal for too long.

In 2021, Japan’s Kansai Airport also welcomed two new security robots. These devices, built by Secom, a Japanese security company, are programmed to patrol the airport following a specific pattern and then stand guard at a predetermined location. The robots come equipped with sensors, 360-degree cameras and ultrasonic sensors.

They’re slow, topping out at 4 kph (2.49 mph), so they won’t be chasing down their targets. However, they are ideal for collecting information and feeding it back to security personnel, who can then decide how to respond. Similar robots, also manufactured by Secom, have been deployed at the Narita International Airport.

Cleaning and Sterilisation

The COVID-19 pandemic became an insurmountable challenge for airports and the travel industry. Crowded indoor spaces that see thousands of people an hour are a prime breeding ground for bacteria and viruses. Instead of shutting down entirely, airports needed a new solution to sterilise shared spaces and keep passengers healthy and safe during their trips. In response, Heathrow Airport in London developed the “Fly Safe Programme.”

The Fly Safe Programme uses a robot with a UV light, created by UVD Robots out of Denmark, to sterilise surfaces. UV light kills 99.9% of bacteria and viruses on surfaces. This little bot can sterilise and disinfect 18,000 square metres in about 2.5 hours. In addition to their sterilisation protocols, these robots are equipped with sensors that allow them to detect the environment so travellers aren’t exposed to UV-C radiation during their operations.

Once the COVID-19 pandemic is a thing of the past, these devices will still help prevent the spread of contagious viruses and bacteria that often gather wherever people congregate. UV-C sterilisation is just as effective for influenza and the common cold as it is for COVID-19. Utilising autonomous robots such as those created by UVD Robots is more efficient than the handheld UV-C wands that some airlines use to manually sterilise commonly touched surfaces.

Creating a Robotic Future

Heathrow, Qatar and Philadelphia aren’t the only places that have started employing airport robotics in terminals. These devices have begun popping up worldwide, with pilot programs launching in Munich, Seoul and LaGuardia, among others. Roughly 40% of airlines have a robotics pilot program and around 14% have some major program already in place, making travelling safer and more comfortable for the thousands of people who take to the sky every day.

Experts estimate that robots could potentially replace traditional check-in procedures by 2030. It could also help make the security screening process faster and easier while providing plenty of measures to keep travellers safe as they fly. These devices might never replace a friendly face after a long flight, but robotics can help reduce the impact of the staffing shortages that are making air travel such a nightmare for the summer season of 2022.

Source Emily Newton

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