The era of robotics is upon us. So what happens after the hype has gone?
Robots in airports are nothing new. From Japan to Amsterdam, Geneva to San Jose, airport operators are experimenting with robots or intelligent machines to help check in baggage or assist passengers find their way through busy airports.
This is not surprising as robotics holds tremendous potential to assist with an array of tasks, particularly during busy, peak periods.
SITA is among those that have trialed various robotic systems in airports. Leo, the baggage robot, has attracted global attention, helping passengers to check in their bags as they approach the terminal building. Airports have also explored the use of mobile kiosks.
But use of robotics has so far been experimental and has some way to go before finding its way into the mainstream.
“For SITA, Leo was the first foray into the use of robotics in airports and showed that there’s a clear interest in using robotics in airports globally,” says Stephane Cheikh, Innovation Manager at SITA.
“However, what’s required is to examine areas within an airport where robotics can have a real impact and value,” he adds.
“We at SITA Lab have asked ourselves where will robotics have the biggest impact over the next 20 years and how we can deliver those products and services?”
“For example, Leo provides a glimpse into the future where robots can make a real difference in managing baggage at every step of the way from check-in to delivery at the destination,” says Cheikh.
“This has helped us shape our thinking around the real use of robotics. It’s here where robotics will have their biggest impact. In areas which are very process-driven.”
Nicola Tomatis, CEO of BlueBotics, the company that assisted in building Leo, agrees: “There’s been a lot of hype around robotics and most people think about robots in a humanoid form roaming airport terminals doing jobs human beings do today.
“The reality is likely to be somewhat different and more focused on industrial applications.”
Rather than build a robot and then try to find something for them to do, we need to identify problem areas where they can assist and then design a robotic solution to solve that challenge.
While much of the media focus has been on humanoid robots, the ‘World Robotics 2016 Industrial Robots’ report shows that globally robotics continues to make their biggest impact in industrial applications.
In 2015, robot sales increased by 15% to 253,748 units, again by far the highest level ever recorded for one year and driven by industrial demand in the chemical, rubber and electronic sectors. The 2015 growth was in line with the double-digit growth over the previous five years, showing continued growth in the next few years.
“Robots are essentially useless until we can find them a job to do. Rather than build a robot and then try to find something for them to do, we need to identify problem areas where they can assist and then design a robotic solution to solve that challenge,” says Tomatis.
“There’s a real benefit to using robots to automate processes, saving on time and money.”
BlueBotics, for example, have used their robotics know-how to develop automated cleaning machines for commercial use and vehicles to deliver supplies in hospitals. Tomatis believes that the same approach is needed in aviation.
A key focus for SITA and BlueBotics in the Leo project was the use of autonomous navigation systems. Looking at an airport, Tomatis agrees that robots could play a key role in automating processes such as baggage handling.
“Another area where robots could play a key role is with assisted passengers,” says Tomatis.
“Just as a robot can pick up your bags from the car park or the curbside, so can robots be dispatched to collect and transport passengers to the terminal and onto the gate, ensuring that they’re in place to meet the passenger when they arrive and to take them through the airport process.
“For passengers that would mean not having to hang around in dark hallways waiting for a porter to arrive. It can all be pre-programmed with the passenger travel details already available, but with the flexibility to access and use all the airport services like any other passenger.”
BlueBotics have also used robotics to automate key wayfinding messages, providing passengers with information on facilities that most passengers need.
This included the use of Robi, a wayfinding robot used at Geneva Airport, which provided passengers with information on shopping and other wayfinding information. The benefit of a mobile robot is that it can move along with the passenger, helping them find what they are looking for.
“This works well in areas where basic passenger information is needed and can be quickly provided,” says Cheikh.
“However, mobile apps do a better job when faced with providing complex wayfinding or information. Here artificial intelligence can also dramatically help to provide personalized information where robotic wayfinding is better used for once-off, formatted interactions.”
“That’s not to say that we don’t see a real benefit to robotics. We just need to be sure we use it in the right place at the right time,” he adds.
In 2017, SITA will continue to explore further use cases for the technology and, in particular aspects, how it can be used to complement common-use technology.
“I don’t see robots replacing humans when it comes to solving complex operational challenges or where creativity is needed. And don’t expect an army of human-like robots to assist you in the airport of the future.
“Rather, expect robots to take care of the mundane, laborious tasks, making travel easier and less stressful.” concludes Cheikh.
Last year was a busy one for Leo, SITA’s baggage robot:
May 2016: Leo begins trial at Geneva Airport.
June 2016: Leo visits SITA’s Air Transport IT Summit, Barcelona.
October 25-26: Leo in action at the Future Travel Experience Asia EXPO 2016 in Singapore.
October 2016: Leo was on show at Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) for the participants of HKIA's second Technovation Conference and Exhibition.
November 7-18: Leo was in Marrakech for the COP22 climate talks taking place in the city. SITA's baggage robot was hosted by Royal Air Maroc, Morocco’s national carrier.
November 28-30: Leo travels to Casablanca Mohammed V International Airport for the Arab Air Carriers Organization 4th AGM.
March 14-16: Passenger Terminal Expo, Amsterdam.
March/April 2016: Leo arrives in South America. Will be visiting Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and Santiago.
September 6-8: Future Travel Experience (FTE), Las Vegas.