Airport Robots Are Already a Reality

Cedric Curtis

When I asked Professor Kostas Daniilidis about the future of robotics at airports, he smiled and responded, "Well, what would you want?". As former head of the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing & Perception Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, Daniilidis has a unique view of the research and development occurring in academic and commercial settings alike.

A number of robotic systems are already being used in airports: 

  • The TaxiBot is a large, semi-robotic electric-powered tug developed by Israel Aerospace Industries and TDL Group that was recently certified for towing Boeing 737s in Europe. After the vehicle docks with an aircraft, the pilot inside the plane controls it. Lufthansa is currently testing the TaxiBot at Frankfurt Airport. 
  • Roving automated "greeter" devices assist passengers with wayfinding and other routine terminal information at numerous airports. These robotic service reps feature mobility, wireless navigation, spatial awareness and are even "sociable." The unit at Indianapolis International, by Double Robotics, is essentially a webcam on wheels that connects airport visitors to a human who offers real-time responses via video link. The rolling BlueBotics system at Geneva Airport invites passengers to touch its interactive menu for further details about their questions and can escort them to their destinations. More evolved versions include stylized telepresence robots (VGo and Anybots) and a humanoid greeter (REEM) previewed at Passenger Terminal Expo 2014. 
  • Valet car parking bots at Dusseldorf Airport use sensors and a mobile mini-forklift to measure, pick up and move autos into reserved parking spots. The system, from Serva Transport, is connected to the airport's flight data system, so it knows when customers will return for their vehicles. 
  • Passengers at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol line up around viewing windows to watch a robot-based system that loads checked bags into carts for transport to aircraft. Implemented by Vanderlande Industries, the Grenzebach Automation system handles the physically demanding aspects of outbound baggage while maintaining human elements for control and supervision. 

 And we have only scratched the surface. Here are a few potential applications:

  • Advanced driver assistance and collision avoidance systems could be added to existing shuttles and trams that service remote parking lots, car rental centers and nearby hotels. In addition, driverless systems are a legitimate possibility, given the relatively limited scale of airport environments. Issues such as reliability in inclement weather, however, still need to be resolved. 
  • Remotely controlled unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as UAVs and drones, will soon be used to measure and video-document the progress of construction projects. Specialized low-flying drones could provide real-time traffic surveillance and assist first responders during emergencies.
  • Swarm technology (coordinated groups of small robotic devices) may be ideal for cleaning terminal floors and windows; landside, it could be deployed for street and landscaping maintenance.
  • A new generation of robotic wheelchairs by ATRS and intelligent mini-transport systems could potentially help deliver elderly travelers or passengers with disabilities to their gates, Baggage Claim, etc. Socially interactive automated escorts and roving alternative information devices might assist customers with sensory impairments.
  • Further improvements for robotic surveillance, explosives countermeasures and fire detection systems are a given. New devices will be able to sniff out and locate chemical, biological, radioactive and explosive threats. 
  • As Web technology evolves, security and maintenance personnel will go beyond using the Internet to autonomously evaluate situations; robotic systems with advanced artificial intelligence will take action as needed from safe distances.

Are these advances are just speculation? I, for one, do not believe so. Even as we tend to overestimate current technology and underestimate future technology, the vast potential for using robots in airports is all too real and presents tremendous untapped opportunity. To quote from Abraham Lincoln: "The best way to predict your future is to create it." 

Cedric Curtis, AIA, is a registered architect with more than 27 years of management and hands-on experience in planning the design and construction of airport buildings. He has served as a technical presenter on airport terminal design issues at numerous airport industry conferences including AAAE, ACI, ACC, AMAC and Passenger Terminal World.

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