Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Int’l Leverages Innovation

Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Int’l Leverages Innovation
Thomas J. Smith
Published in: 

Stroll through Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) and you might encounter a machine without an operator scrubbing the floors, a small cargo pod dutifully rolling behind an employee as if by magic, and any number of other tech-forward devices hard at work.   

Why the emphasis on futuristic innovations? To build a compelling brand experience that keeps passengers coming back. 

“Unlike anywhere else in the U.S., CVG is surrounded by five other competing airports all within a 60- to 90-minute drive,” explains Brian Cobb, CVG’s chief innovation officer. “Consumers in this drive-centric geography have choices about which airport they will use. You need to create a fandom approach so that decision moves away from utilitarian to trust and a love of the product. If consistent, just as in sports, fans will come back year after year.”

In short, innovation is part of CVG’s brand. And having a chief innovation officer on its organizational chart demonstrates a commitment to the approach.   

Standing still or maintaining the status quo is not acceptable, explains Cobb. Instead, the airport emphasizes improving on what it did yesterday. “If that involves technology, you can call it innovation,” he comments. “But it is really about how you propel your brand forward.”

He describes innovation as a combination of talent, technology and change management.

“The aviation industry is full of innovative approaches,” says Chief Executive Officer Candace McGraw. “At CVG, we are strategically positioning our airport for the future by leaning into new ways of thinking and advancing technologies. By doing this, we establish partnerships and test technology in a live airport environment, all to enhance the airport experience for travelers, business partners and the community.” 

To do so, Cobb and his staff leverage their annual budget to research and test a wide range of developing products and services. Together, they assess MVPS (minimum viable product status); and if test results demonstrate enough potential, the team develops revenue strategies to pay for full deployment. 

The airport is also a member of Cintrifuse, a technology business incubator supported by the area’s Fortune 500 companies, universities, local governments and small businesses.

H2Oh Cool

Sustainability and enhancing the customer experience are two key elements Cobb’s team considers when looking for ways to diversify concessions. The September arrival of two Drop Water vending machines, one in each concourse, checked both boxes. The self-service machines dispense plain, flavored and/or caffeinated water into a customer’s own reusable bottle or a cardboard “bottle” from inside the machine. Cobb likens the vending units to Coca-Cola Freestyle® machines found in quick-serve restaurants and convenience stores.

 “It is a fun-to-use machine,” he says of the mix-and-match options it offers customers. “And it is clearly a sustainable approach.”

Regarding sustainability features, the company’s patented cardboard containers can be reused before beginning to deteriorate, and then they’re recyclable or compostable. Moreover, the vending machines filter the airport’s tap water, so the Silicon Valley startup does not transport it in vehicles that burn diesel fuel and produce emissions.

“We really think this is the future of bottled drinks,” says Drop Water Chief Executive Officer Scott Edwards. 

 From a footprint perspective (critical for most airports), each of the company’s vending machines holds more than 1,000 of its empty cardboard bottles. A traditional vending machine would require 10 times that space to store a similar number of filled plastic or glass bottles.

CVG is also working with PathWater, a firm that sells purified water in reusable aluminum bottles. The company, also from California, plans to sell its bottled water via existing concessionaires and vending machines; but the coronavirus pandemic is hampering its rollout.

“Right now, the retailers are trying to figure out how to survive rather than bringing on new product concepts,” says Cobb. “When they are ready to re-open and are looking to improve their product offerings, this one speaks to the sustainability elements.”

He hopes PathWater will be available at CVG by this spring. The airport does not have a master concessionaire to run new products through. Instead, HMS Host and Paradies Lagardère manage and lease retail and food/beverage spaces.

Service, Will Robinson

Robotic ventures are another main category for Cobb and his cohorts. In late fall, they began a 12-week trial of gita, a 2-foot tall “personal robot” designed and manufactured by Piaggio Fast Forward. Airport personnel have been testing gita’s ability to carry passengers’ items from the security checkpoint to the gate area. Cobb also sees the potential for the droid-like unit to deliver food orders to passengers already at the gates.

“We are using the [pandemic] slowdown as an opportunity to deploy new products,” Cobb explains. “Passengers will see all the differences and see that we used the time wisely.”

In November, CVG served about 5,000 travelers per day—roughly 40% its usual volume.

Currently, the challenge is determining how to best serve travelers and the concession tenants.

“In this COVID era, travelers go through screening and head immediately to their gate and do not leave it,” says Cobb, noting that this behavior is taking a toll on retail and food/beverage sales.

He considers the situation a doubled-edged sword. Passengers have fewer options because many concessions remain closed or are open for very limited hours; but there are fewer passengers to support the concessions that are open.

That all-too-common dichotomy is prompting Cobb to search for ways to help concession operators reengage—perhaps by matching their schedules and locations to the airlines’ arrival and departure schedules in near real-time. “We need to be more intelligent on what the consumer is doing and spending,” he muses.

Date-Driven Approach

CVG uses information from a variety of sources to gain insight about customers’ spending habits.

In fact, it was the first U.S. airport to deploy Bluetooth and Wi-Fi “sniffer” sensors. CVG originally installed the sensors at its security checkpoint to collect real-time information about wait-times, which was used to guide decisions about reallocating staff resources to reduce wait-times. Later, it added additional sensors throughout the facility to collect information about travelers’ traffic patterns.

CVG also participates in the Airport Service Quality program, administered by the Airports Council International, to receive immediate feedback from travelers as they complete iPad surveys at the gate. The airport has also gathered data through online surveys in the past.

And completing the tech loop, CVG’s restrooms are equipped with sensors that count the number of guests using each particular facility. Housekeepers wear Samsung Gear Watches, enabled with TaskWatch technology, that alert them when a restroom needs to be serviced.

Innovations Making the Grade

Here is a sampling of the innovations that are currently in the works or already deployed at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG).

Product: Sustainable water vending machines

Company: Drop Water

Hometown: Redwood City, CA

Status at CVG: On site since fall 2019

When Drop Water installed two of its vending machines at CVG last fall, it was a homecoming of sorts. The company originally connected with the airport in 2018 after winning a $25,000 grant at an international event sponsored by a technology business incubator that CVG supports.  

Drop Water vending machines filter the airport’s tap water and dispense it chilled or at room temperature, with or without flavoring (there are six options) and/or caffeine (three concentration levels). Customers also decide whether to dispense the water into their own refillable bottles or 16-ounce cardboard containers from the machine.

Plain water dispensed into a customer’s bottle is free, and adding flavoring costs $1. Plain water dispensed into a Drop Water container costs $2, with prices ranging up to $3.45 for flavoring and three caffeine shots.

Customers using the company’s app can order and pay for drinks without touching the vending machine—a feature that has become more popular during the coronavirus pandemic.

CVG is the second U.S. airport to offer customers Drop Water beverages. The firm tested its machines for six months at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) in late 2019 and in November 2019 installed its first permanent vending machines in San Jose International Airport (SJC). Company officials are currently negotiating to bring its water machines back into SFO.

Product: Neo, an autonomous floor cleaner

Company: Avidbots

Hometown: Kitchener, ON

Status at CVG: Deployed in January 2020

Neo, an autonomous commercial floor scrubber from Avidbots, has been operating full-time at CVG for more than one year. The airport tested the device for two months before putting it into operation. Since its arrival at CVG, Neo has cleaned more than 5 million square feet of flooring.

The machine applies a solution of soap and water, scrubs the floor with cleaning disks and then vacuums up the dirty water to leave the floor dry—all without an operator.

Although Avidbots has its equipment in five of the world’s top 10 airports (as ranked by SkyTrax), CVG is currently the only U.S. airport with a Neo.

The machine can clean 40,000 square feet per hour, and a battery pack powers the floor scrubber for six hours. Its 112-liter water tank also lasts six hours in most cleaning situations. At CVG, Neo is deployed around-the-clock.

Before its first mission, the robot was programed with a map of the airport’s concourses; but it also “teaches itself” to navigate around anything new in its path. For instance, Neo will stop and adjust if it encounters unexpected objects or people.

The unit also alerts the housekeeping staff when it approaches sensitive objects such as museum pieces on display at the airport. Personnel then switch it to manual mode to clean floors in that area.

Because the machine has optical sensors and cameras to “see,” it can clean around passengers’ luggage. In the future, Neo may even be programmed to alert security about unattended baggage.

Cobb, notes that CVG’s robot floor scrubber is especially valuable during the coronavirus pandemic because it shows travelers that the airport cleans and sanitizes throughout the day—not just
at night.

Neo also cleans floors in a minimally intrusive manner and frees up housekeeping staff to devote more time to other cleaning and sanitizing duties, adds Jeff Schrantz, vice president of global sales for Avidbots. 

Currently, CVG has one Neo machine in operation, which it purchased with capital funds rather than operating revenue. The airport is considering leasing a second unit when passenger traffic, and the associated grime, pick up.

Product: gita, a personal cargo-carrying robot

Company: Piaggio Fast Forward

Hometown: Boston

Status at CVG: Ongoing pilot

Late last fall, CVG began a 12-week trial of gita (pronounced JEE’-tah), a personal robot that carries luggage and other items up to 40 pounds. One reviewer described the 2-foot-tall machine as a “cargo-carrying droid.”

While CVG is the first airport to test the product, individual owners and planned communities in the U.S. and Europe are already using gita to carry groceries, shopping bags and other parcels. Piaggio Fast Forward sells gita online directly to consumers for $3,250.

Greg Lynn, the company’s chief executive officer, explains that gita uses optical scanners to pair with and follow its operator. “It understands who it is to follow and never takes its sensors off the person as it is following them,” he relates. “Our core business is to understand the pedestrian environment. It is not like an industrial robot that you have to map everything [for].”

During CVG’s proof-of-concept pilot, staff had the personal robot carry materials for meetings around the concourse so travelers could see it in action; and response was enthusiastic. In fact, 90% of airport guests who were surveyed said they would use gita and wished it were already in service.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, CVG reached out to at least five robot companies seeking a pilot program at the airport. “We see this as a growth strategy,” Cobb explains, adding that he was surprised how quickly Piaggio Fast Forward arranged an onsite trial.

“We have had a lot of requests from other airports to have gita run things to the planes or work behind the scenes…but they were not a good fit,” Lynn comments. “CVG was the first airport with a vision of helping people to be more efficient rather than replacing people.”

Cobb foresees two possible roles for gita at CVG: helping passengers with their carry-on items between the TSA checkpoint and gate area; and picking up food orders from concessionaires and delivering them to passengers already at the gates.

Toward that end, Lynn notes that gita was designed so a large suitcase can stand on end in its cargo area.

Cobb envisions the fee for luggage transport at $10 to $15 for a 30-minute block of time. CVG could also add a surcharge for food deliveries by gita, much as street side restaurants add a fee for Door Dash or Uber Eats delivery.

Likely customers would be aging travelers and parents with small children. “If it works with these demographics, then it can be used by any,” says Cobb.

Piaggio Fast Forward designs and builds gita in Boston, but the firm is affiliated with the Italian manufacturer of Vespa scooters.


Product: Autonomous baggage tug

Company: ThorDrive

Hometown: Cincinnati

Status at CVG: Ongoing pilot

For about a year, ThorDrive has been mapping the airfield and service area around Concourse A to program its autonomous baggage tractor for subsequent use. In December, the company unveiled its proof-of-concept vehicle, a Wollard International tractor augmented with multiple sensors and other tech-forward components.

“We have developed the technology to a point with a backup safety operator that we are now ready to operate it in a fully autonomous mode,” reports Edward Shelton, ThorDrive’s vice president of business development.

For CVG, this means the tractor is ready to pull baggage and cargo into the baggage make-up area of Concourse A. Shelton explains that in addition to reducing the staff needed for ground crews, the autonomous vehicle will enhance safety because “the computer always does as it is programmed and does not cut corners when in a hurry.”

Originally a South Korean firm, ThorDrive has been developing its autonomous drive technology more than 15 years. Instead of building vehicles from scratch, it retrofits existing vehicles with its technology.

“CVG has been very excited and supportive of new airport technologies, our development and our path to commercialization,” Shelton says.

Late last year, ThorDrive was preparing to seek a new round of investors in hopes of beginning commercial sales by the end of 2021. 

If all goes well, Cobb envisions an autonomous ThorDrive vehicle shuttling customers between the parking lots and terminals as well as moving luggage and cargo carts.

Service: At-Airport Personal Assistance

Company: SkySquad

Hometown: Washington, D.C.

Status at CVG: Launching soon

With agreements already signed, CVG plans to begin offering SkySquad’s web-booked concierge service early this year.

The company hires independent contractors to provide general airport assistance—everything from greeting passengers at the curb and escorting them through security checkpoints to picking up food orders and keeping an eye on carry-on items while they are in the restroom. As the SkySquad website puts it, onsite assistants “provide the extra set of hands that you have always wished you had at the airport.” As such, families with young children, seniors and pet owners are key customers.

Pricing varies according to services requested (surcharges apply for more than five bags, meeting at rental car return, etc.). The family fee is $99 for two hours of service.

At CVG, the company anticipates hiring 20 off-duty, badged airport employees to ensure that its service will always be available. Customers must make reservations at least 24 hours in advance on SkySquad’s website.

The airport learned about the concierge service from a former executive at CLEAR who now serves as an advisor for SkySquad. 

Interestingly, COVID-19 may end up having a mixed effect on the company. On one hand, the service was just getting started when the pandemic hit and slowed demand to just a few clients per week. But SkySquad founder and Chief Executive Officer Julie Melnick also sees an upside: “With the pandemic, all airports and airlines are looking for ways to give confidence to their travelers. SkySquad does that.

“CVG is known for their innovations, and we were drawn to that,” she adds. “We are excited to roll out in an airport that is very supportive of our program.”

The company currently operates at Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) and Washington Reagan National
Airport (DCA). SkySquad operations began at IAD in December 2019. 


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