Revenues that are not directly related to aeronautics contribute significantly to the growth of airports and the airline industry. And these non-aeronautical revenues are expected to increase with the growing numbers of passengers globally, following a rise of 6.5 percent in passenger numbers from 2017 to 2018, according to International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), Civil Aviation Statistics of the World and ICAO staff estimates. To address the growing numbers of passengers and improve the passenger experience, airports are investing in their facilities. Airport authorities in Amsterdam, Geneva and Indianapolis have already begun to leverage robots in several consumer-facing ways, including passenger wayfinding.
Beacons have emerged as an important element for airport digital transformation, supporting a range of functions and businesses, from retail to baggage handling and wayfinding. After the digital makeover of the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, for example, a passenger can find his or her way to the gate rapidly and seamlessly without having to type the flight number into the interactive kiosks and wait for the options. A wayfinding application accesses booking and boarding information stored in the passenger’s smartphone and quickly directs him or her the gate via the shortest route. The app receives location monitoring data from several operational beacons at Schiphol and alerts the passenger to queues at security gates. By communicating the expected boarding time and directing passengers to the gate along the shortest route, airport authorities can reduce the waiting time and better manage queues.
Today, beacon-equipped wayfinding is evolving into robotic wayfinding, which some airport authorities and airlines believe is a more interactive and effective mode of assisting passengers. The following examples represent some of the key types of robotic wayfinding technologies prevalent in airports.
Webcam-on-wheels: Some airports are using robotics to bridge the gap between human assistance and digital wayfinding. Technology startup company Double Robotics developed a robot for Indianapolis International airport that connects passengers to a human agent delivering real-time responses through a video link. Also, the rolling BlueBotics system at the Geneva Airport presents an interactive menu to airport visitors for details about their travel plans and directions through the facility. At the Helsinki airport, telecom company Telia has launched a 5G-enabled wayfinding robot, which sends a real-time video stream back to its human operators so they can swiftly resolve passenger challenges.
Dynamic environment analyzers: Even along the shortest route, a passenger may face temporary obstructions, such as parked luggage trolleys or delayed travelers. Dutch flagship carrier KLM was facing significant losses due to inexperienced passengers missing their flights. The carrier collaborated with researchers from Örebro University in Sweden, along with several researchers from Germany, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands, to develop a robot named SPENCER that was designed to direct passengers through the complex and constantly changing environment of an airport. At the Delhi International Airport, Tata Innovation Lab implemented RADA, an AI-powered query resolution that addresses passenger requirements such as direction to departure gates, informing flight status and weather at destination through by boarding pass scanning.
Evolving humanoids: Some airports are working to build a more hospitable environment for passengers. As a result, robots are being designed with more human-like features. The Mineta San Jose International Airport, in collaboration with interactive wayfinding and digital signage software specialist 22 Miles, implemented robots named Norma, Amelia and Piper to enhance the customer experience in the airport. The robots have basic functionality to provide a searchable directory and wayfinding map, and they also have the capability to dance and take “selfies.” "Pepper" at the Christchurch Airport in New Zealand is another example of this trend.
Where are the opportunities?
Robots are evolving every day, from mere information-presenting machines to stylized telepresence robots and humanoid greeters (such as VGo, Anybots and REEM). Airport robots represent a unique combination of hardware, mobility, wireless navigation, spatial awareness, user-experience design and cognitive technologies. They promise numerous opportunities for technology developers and system integrators to find the right balance between entertainment and information services and to incorporate human-like attributes to make robots more "sociable.” At the same time, robots offer airport stakeholders, including restaurants, duty-free stores and lounges, as well as the airline companies themselves, a robust marketing platform to showcase their offerings and boost non-aeronautical revenue growth.
Travelers may not adapt to these humanoid services as promptly as they are being developed and ordained, as reflected in a recent survey by a global travel data provider OAG. Travelers still prefer human agents to automation and robotics, biometrics and advanced security technologies are not living up to the requirements of an alternative to human intervention. Thus, airports and travel industry players must educate passengers to leverage the full potential of robotics.
Also, to take full advantage of the IoT network of a digitally transformed airport, the stakeholders of the aviation industry must carefully consider investing in assistive technology development. While a number of carriers, such as Air France-KLM, have pioneered wayfinding robots for their passengers, airline agnostic robots may be the best option for assisting passengers irrespective of their scheduled carrier. This will allow robots to operate across gates and terminals and improve the overall airport experience.
The airline industry is conducting research on the way passengers interact with robots. One such project initiated by Telia and Finnish airport authority Finavia shows there is still some question about how receptive passengers in emerging economies – who contribute significantly to the growing number of passengers globally – are to the robotic technologies. It also shows that robots must be able to handle the needs of a diverse range of people from different cultures, languages and abilities. Before investing in a large-scale deployment of passenger-assistance robots, stakeholders should better understand the robots’ potential for new revenue streams, improved passenger experience and improved safety and security.