The promise of robotics

The era of robotics and artificial intelligence promises to change the way airports will be designed in future, making for an easier journey.

Robotics and artificial intelligence continue to open new possibilities and uses, from hotels and the service sector to manufacturing and healthcare. Every day brings new uses, new robots and a changing view of the future.  

Scanning news headlines in the past few months shows the growing momentum in the field of robotics.

Among the more recent announcements was the introduction of an autonomous robot that could cut down on the admin work librarians have to do, while robot bartenders are making their debut in pouring and serving cocktails aboard a new cruise liner.

Each project holds the promise of saving costs, helping their human co-workers become more productive or providing a better service.

The air transport sector is no exception. The use of robotics holds tremendous potential, from helping provide passengers with information on their journey through the airport to easing baggage check-in and handling.

This technology could ultimately change the shape of airports as we know them today.  

Key research area

For this reason robotics remains a key area of research and development for the SITA Lab, SITA’s innovation arm.

“Our task to is investigate new technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things to provide new solutions that make the air transport sector stronger,” says Renaud Irminger, Director of SITA Lab.

“Robotics is an interesting area as we can see that it will have several benefits to our industry, particularly in the area of baggage where it provides a smarter way to ensure a safer, more efficient process from the moment passengers hand over their bags to when they collect them.”

Welcome to ‘LEO’

In the Lab’s most recent project, working together with robotics specialist Bluebotics and Geneva Airport, SITA trialed a new baggage robot concept at the airport, named ‘Leo’.

Leo is a fully autonomous, self-propelling baggage robot that has the capacity to check in, print bag tags and transport up to two suitcases with a maximum weight of 32kg.

It has an obstacle avoidance capability and can navigate in a high-traffic environment such as an airport. It allows passengers to check-in their bags outside the terminal and then head straight to the gate.

Leo then takes the bags directly to the baggage handling area where they’re sorted and connected to the correct flight.

“Bluebotics were an ideal partner for this project as the platform they provided was easy to manage and to set up, ensuring that Leo was able to safely and quickly navigate through the airport,” says Stephane Cheikh, Ventures & Innovation Manager at SITA Lab.

Easing congestion

According to Massimo Gentile, Head of Information and Communication Technologies at Geneva Airport: “In a busy airport such as Geneva Airport, the use of a robot like Leo can limit the number of bags in the terminal, helping us accommodate a growing number of passengers without compromising the passenger experience at the airport.

“Anyone who has passed through the airport during the winter months will appreciate how removing big, bulky items such as skis will help create more space. This is an area where Leo can help us and we will continue to work with SITA to develop Leo and see how best he can serve our requirements.”

Glimpse into the future

Named after the Italian Renaissance inventor and engineer Leonardo da Vinci who built what is now recognized as the world’s first robot, Leo provides the airport with a glimpse into the future of baggage handling being explored by SITA Lab.

It‘s these longer term benefits that will really interest airports such as Geneva over the next few years. 

“For us Leo proves the case for increased use of robotics to make the passenger’s journey a little more comfortable, whether it is checking in baggage, providing directions or helping them through the security process,” says Gentile.

“It helps us shape our thinking when we start to look to the future and how we will build new facilities to accommodate these technologies.

“It allows us to approach the design differently and say ‘maybe we don’t need to have so many check-in counters’ if we have a way where the bags never enter the terminal in the first place.”

Irminger says Leo is the first tentative step towards helping airports use robotics to improve baggage facilitation and handling. “We see several ways in which robotics and artificial intelligence can be used to manage baggage more smartly.”

Robot trials

In a follow up to Leo, the SITA Lab is looking to trial a system where an autonomous vehicle will receive sorted baggage and deliver it directly to the aircraft.

“Using robotic technology, we believe that bags can be delivered more efficiently and accurately with less likelihood of being loaded late or on the wrong flight, helping employees manage a growing numbers of bags each year as passenger numbers around the world continue to grow.”   

Just the start

While Irminger acknowledges that these developments may not change the way bags are handled in the immediate future, it holds the potential to reshape airports as we know them today.

“This is just the start and over the coming years we will continue to look at ways we can take the existing automation of the baggage handling process a step further.

“Bags will be automatically checked-in long before they get to the airport – be it at a hotel or railway station – and delivered when and where passengers want them.

“Artificial intelligence and the use of robotics will be key achieving that vision of the future,” concludes Irminger.  

 

Leo the baggage robot: How does it work?

  • Leo comes to the assistance of passengers as they approach the terminal building
  • Touching Leo’s Scan&Fly bag drop interface opens the baggage compartment doors to allow passengers to place their bags inside
  • After passengers have scanned their boarding passes, the tags are printed and can be attached to the bag
  • With the bags loaded and tagged, the compartment door closes and Leo displays the boarding gate and departure time
  • The doors of Leo the robot can only be reopened by the operator unloading the baggage in the airport
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