Robotic systems have been used within the manufacturing industry for many years now to both augment the workforce and enhance performance. As robotic solutions have decreased in cost and increased in complexity, new types of solutions and use cases are now available, and passengers and airport operators will begin to see benefits from robotic solutions.
TechTarget defines a robot as a machine designed to execute one or more tasks automatically and defines robotics as the branch of engineering involving the operation of robots. Based solely on this definition, robotics has a wide range of commercial and personal applications. The technologies that enable robotic solutions differ based on the use case but typically include a battery, motor, sensor, and computing technologies. As technology has reduced in size, more applications have emerged for robotic solutions. While often associated with automation and job loss, robotic solutions have been increasingly providing assistance to users. Many have theorized where robotics can be used, but new innovations provide a glimpse into what is possible for robotics. Now airport operators can begin to look for ways to improve their workforce and operational efficiency through the inclusion of robotic systems.
Robotics is placed in the Intermediate Transformation Tier of this Publication since airport processes stand to be particularly impacted by the inclusion of advanced robotic solutions. For example, numerous staffing positions risk being replaced in current airport processes by robotic deployments, specifically in highly repetitive roles. Despite robotics bringing potentially drastic changes to current airport processes, the airport industry can leverage experience gained from both aviation and non-aviation deployments of robotic solutions. Although these solutions are not fully automated or operate in only a limited scope, the lessons learned can help airport organizations incorporate more advanced robotic solutions into the airport.
Until real-world deployments begin, airport operators will likely not understand the full impact that robotic solution deployments will have on their airport environment. This article outlines many of the high-profile impacts that airport operators may expect from robotic solutions as their usage increases. Following the impact list, two notable impacts are detailed further.
- Staffing adjustments and cost savings
- Robotic solutions require additional budgetary considerations
- Adjusting current service-level agreements to appropriate levels based on the incorporation of robotic solutions
- Network connectivity and computing power considerations to support advanced robotic solutions
- Potential replacement of current infrastructure to accommodate robotic solutions
- Operating environment requirements
Process/Skill Set Changes
- Remapping processes to incorporate human staff using robotic solutions
- Necessary staff knowledge and skills to deploy and maintain robotic solutions
- Staff training to prepare the organization for the use of robotic solutions
Passenger Experience/Passenger Process
- Robotic operations in passenger-facing areas
- Designing new and more effective passenger interactions with technology
- Offering new passenger services and processing options
- New assistive offerings for passengers
- Accounting for passenger-owned robotic solutions at security checkpoints
- Process design must consider safe robotic operation around human staff and passengers
- Improved safety by reducing staff exposure to potentially unsafe scenarios
- Airport design must consider the environmental operating factors necessary for robotic solutions to operate
- Airport design must incorporate the necessary power and storage requirements
- Airport design must allow for flexibility to adjust to changes in passenger needs as robotic solutions are deployed throughout the passenger journey
- Revenue increases from new passenger services
- Cost reductions and performance improvements
- Prior staffing contract agreements
- Passenger-facing robotics regulations
Operating environment requirements: Airport operators must consider the environmental factors necessary for robotic solutions to operate in the real world. From flooring type to network density and operating space, multiple areas throughout the airport property will need to be analyzed to determine if they are sufficient for a chosen use case. While future robotic solutions may include increased flexibility in operating environments, current solutions must mitigate operating variables where possible. This can impact current airport infrastructure or construction plans, as they will now need to accommodate yet-to-be-developed robotic solutions in airport design.
Accounting for passenger-owned robotic solutions at security checkpoints: Robotic solutions have numerous use cases outside of the airport industry—such as robotic limbs or assistive mobility devices—some of which airport operators must account for within airport operations. Consumer adoption of robotic solutions, primarily to assist those with disabilities, will require accommodations to the security process, like developing acceptable device policies for passengers. Passengers who have gained new levels of autonomy through robotics will not want to lose that freedom while traveling. Airport operators must monitor new consumer-focused robotic solutions that may require further security considerations for travelers.
To better understand robotics technology, airport operators should gain a better understanding of its specific attributes. This article explores the operating factors of robotics and some of its usage characteristics. Understanding these attributes will help airport operators determine applicable use cases for robotics and how their organization can support it.
Elimination of Current Processes or Approaches
Robotic solutions present airport managers with potentially vast changes to current operational processes. Advanced robotic solutions can begin to replace human tasks within a process. The inclusion of robotic solutions in an airport organization has the potential to eliminate many aspects of current processes due to redundancy. In passenger processing, robotic solutions could verify passenger identity, help with baggage intake, and provide updated flight information in remote locations without airport staff intervention. Robotic solutions deployed throughout the airport property can enable other customer service actions, like wayfinding or concession delivery services. Processes previously in place may achieve new levels of efficiency by including robotics in the process. As the form factors and functionality of robotic solutions increase with adoption, their use for both assisting and replacing human staff in processes should be re-evaluated.
Computing Power and Hardware Requirements
Robotic solutions require advanced onboard computing power and enabling technologies to operate effectively in real work environments. Object detection, artificial intelligence, and advanced engineering techniques are required to design flexible robotic solutions in appropriate form factors.
Customer Culture Changes/Cultural Impacts
To be most effectively used, robotic solutions require extensive culture changes toward increased trust in technology solutions. It may take some time for travelers and airport staff to grow comfortable with everyday interactions that have robotic solutions. Before robots are embraced in everyday life, users will need to learn to trust the safety and effectiveness of robotic solutions.
Use Cases/Business Effect
With every new or emerging technology, there are two basic questions an airport operator asks: “How can my airport use this?” and “How does this affect my business, even if my airport doesn’t wish to use it for our own benefit?” This article provides answers to both of these questions, addressing the airport uses cases and business effect of robotic solutions.
As robotic solutions advance to a point of being cost-effective with widespread adoption, potential use cases become available for airport operators to incorporate into their organizations.
Remote Baggage Handling
Robotic solutions can help with baggage intake, processing, and transportation, providing benefits at multiple steps of the handling process. For example, robots can meet passengers at their arrival location, whether that be the parking garage or check-in hall entrance, and process their baggage. These robots would be able to navigate the environment to a specific passenger, verify their identity, take the bag, and deliver it to an injection point for the airport baggage handling system. Such a solution may rely on a high-speed connection, object detection technologies, and baggage handling functionality.
Robotic solutions can assist passengers who generally require more assistance along their journey. Passengers can use solutions that help transport bags across the airport property or follow passengers who need additional support. Robotic solutions can also be dispatched in terminals to aid unfamiliar passengers or help to translate for passengers who do not speak the prevalent language. The solutions should be tightly integrated with airport operations and have access to large sets of airport data.
Cleaning and Maintenance
A fleet of robots could provide maintenance and cleaning to areas of the airport. Centrally deployed and managed, these groups of robots would keep airports cleaned as needed and react in real time to cleaning needs. These robots could also provide routine maintenance and be designed to operate in locations where airport staff generally do not go.
Security drones and robots could patrol interior or exterior areas of the airport property. These would provide an extra set of eyes to security staff and could even provide some threat mitigation through sirens or non-lethal deterrents.
Whether or not an airport chooses to employ robotics for its own benefit, robotic solutions that are not directly initiated/driven by the airport organization may have an effect on aspects of the airport’s operations.
Incorporate Passenger-Owned Robotics
Passengers may soon use robotics in their everyday lives. Robotic exoskeletons may help passengers with limited mobility walk more effectively, and passengers who have lost limbs may soon use robotic prosthetics that can replicate regular human movement. Security protocols will need to consider these technologies, as passengers would not want to face limitations when they travel.
Airport operators interested in new or emerging technologies such as robotics will differ in their levels of risk tolerance. Some organizations are comfortable at the forefront of technology and have the resources to support innovation. Other organizations are interested in simply exploring how they can use robotic solutions within their limited resources.
This article takes a tiered approach to robotics, providing use cases that are separated by the following innovation tiers: Reactive, Strategic, and Innovative.
Robotic Cleaning Solutions
Airport operators can design processes that incorporate automated cleaning solutions to assist current janitorial staff. For example, airport properties can use automated robotic solutions for routine floor cleaning, potentially offering more frequent cleaning of the airport property. A robotic solution provides an airport’s janitorial organization with more flexibility in deploying their human capital in more strategic areas while maintaining a higher level of cleanliness within the airport property.
Robotic Baggage Processing
Robotic solutions embedded with the correct equipment provide new baggage handling options for passengers and airport operators. Robotic baggage transport solutions can be deployed in both passenger-facing or behind-the-scenes roles. Robotic solutions operating in place of an airport’s baggage handling system can provide more remote processing options, along with the option to scale to fit baggage volume as needed.
Robotic Solutions in Passenger Service
Airport organizations can deploy robotic solutions geared toward assisting passengers with aspects of their travel journey. For example, robotics incorporated with information displays and voice recognition can provide wayfinding and language translation services, as well as answer general questions for passengers. Robots can roam the airport terminals or be dispatched to assist with high passenger volumes. While similar solutions have been piloted within the airport industry, there are few full-scale deployments of smart solutions.
Robotic solutions deployed on the airfield can provide assistance with the service and turnaround of airplanes by doing the cleaning, stocking, refueling, and baggage handling to drive efficiency and reduce turnover time. However, an airport organization must employ several form factors of robotic solutions to properly service a plane. Further technical development is still needed to operate the various robotic form factors and provide the computing power required to operate these robotic solutions in variable-rich environments. Airport organizations can begin to break down processes to their most essential elements to identify ways in which automation can be introduced.
Baggage Handler Exoskeletons
Baggage handlers routinely must move, lift, or sort heavy passenger baggage throughout the course of a shift. A robotic exoskeleton worn by baggage handling staff allows for the exoskeleton to shoulder most of the weight of the baggage being moved. An exoskeleton would reduce bodily wear for baggage handling staff while increasing the speed at which they can complete their jobs. However, the development of exoskeleton solutions is still far out in development, as advancements in engineering and size are still undergoing prototyping.
Exploring robotic solution deployments in both aviation and non-aviation industries can provide airport operators with a better understanding of the technology as a whole. This article outlines the current state of robotics from both perspectives.
Airlines are looking to equip their baggage handling and maintenance personnel with robotic exoskeleton technology. This technology could provide an easier and more efficient work environment for staff.,
Robots are being used to transport passengers’ bags in both larger-scale baggage handling system augmentation and more personal use cases. Passengers with assistive needs may also hope to use the technology to improve their journey within the airport.
Airports are incorporating robotics into their maintenance plan. Maintenance departments can develop processes that leverage the accuracy and central management of robotic systems.
Robotics within the manufacturing process has been thoroughly explored. Manufacturers stand to reap large cost and efficiency benefits through the inclusion of robotic solutions.
Robots are not simply replacing jobs; they are also helping staff improve performance. Walmart has recently begun deployments of robots in real-world retail locations. These robots help staff with day-to-day work like inventory and store cleanup.
Technology solutions may enable or be supported by other types of technologies. In some cases, the advancement of one technology may be vital to the effective use of another. This article highlights some of the high-level ways that robotics may leverage the functionality of other technologies or be used to enhance the functionality of another technology. As solution development continues, integrations with other technologies may become more evident.
Internet of Things
Robotic solutions can leverage the data provided by the Internet of things device deployment to better interact with their environment. Future robotic solutions may rely on these connected devices for wayfinding, contextual information, or process augmentation. Robotic solutions will also use connected elements to provide data and monitoring capabilities to airport operators. Airport operators can then begin to gather data from their equipment and processes using connected devices to improve the operation of robotic solutions.
To effectively transmit the necessary data and operate in an unsupervised environment, a robotic solution can benefit from leveraging the lower latency and increased speeds provided by 5G, or fifth generation, networks. 5G networks provide the data speeds necessary for robotic solutions to work wirelessly across an environment. This can allow for more robotic form factors and better allocation of resources to support large-scale robotic deployments.
Robots must use artificial intelligence (AI) to constantly assess their surroundings and complete their tasks in the face of variables. As AI performance improves, robotics will be able to interact in more variable-rich environments with a decreasing amount of human assistance necessary.
As with some other technologies noted in this Publication, there are market forces or obstacles in development that present barriers to the deployment and widespread adoption of robotic solutions. Keeping abreast of these barriers can help airport operators know when to expect to see wider use of this technology in the public and when they should look to reassess it for their own use. This article outlines the current state of robotics barriers.
Improvements to Robotic Task Performance and Operational Flexibility
Current robotic offerings are focused on specific use cases with limited variables. Advancements must be made to allow further operational flexibility for robots that would enable the machines to operate in a greater range of operational environments.
Cost of Current Solutions
Current robotic solutions are very specialized to a specific environment or use case, greatly increasing costs. These high costs make it difficult for businesses to see a return on investment at this current stage. As costs are lowered, robotics will make business sense in more operating locations.
Improvement of Enabling Technologies, Including Battery Technology, Connectivity, and Object Detection
Further advancement is needed in technologies that enable robotic solutions. Technology areas such as batteries, network connectivity, and object detection are vital to developing effective robotic solutions. As the functionality of these devices improves and the costs decrease, the performance of robotic solutions will also improve.