MIAMI – As air travel ramps up again after a year of decline, airports worldwide face higher pressure to become more efficient. Many people associate airports with delays, expense and inconvenience, distinctions that become increasingly unfavorable as the digitization makes the world a more agile place. Airport robotics stands as an elegant solution to these long-standing issues in the industry.

Other sectors like manufacturing have incorporated robotics into their operations with great success. Still, the path forward for airports isn’t always as clear or straightforward as these other industries. Robots are a significant investment, so airports need efficient, high-performing use cases to capitalize on them.

Over the past few years, these applications have become more clear. Here’s how airports can incorporate robotics efficiently into their operations.

Airport representatives say the UVD autonomous robot takes about 10 to 15 minutes to disinfect a room using UV technology. Photo: WWMT/Gerald R. Ford International Airport

Improving Sanitation

After the COVID-19 pandemic, the most obvious use case for airport robotics is in sanitation. Cleaning is straightforward enough for today’s robots to handle and routine enough to be a valuable application for automation. By automating sanitation processes, airports can ensure health and cleanliness without potentially exposing cleaning staff to harmful contaminants.

The Gerald R. Ford International Airport (GRR) in Grand Rapids, Michigan, implemented a cleaning robot in July 2020. The robot uses ultraviolet light to disinfect surfaces and can clean an entire room in roughly 10 to 15 minutes. That level of efficiency would be challenging for a human worker to match.

Sanitation robots don’t have to replace human workers, either. Ideally, they work alongside employees to maximize how quickly and effectively an airport can clean. 

Resolving Service Desk Bottlenecks

Help desks and ticket counters are some of the most common points of low efficiency in airports. Since flights are prone to delays, these stations are often busy, but they also typically have just a few employees working at a time. Some airports have started to address this issue by turning to robots.

In 2019, London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR) introduced two robot assistants to Terminal 5, its busiest concourse. The bots can communicate in multiple languages, guide passengers to facilities, answer questions and offer real-time flight information. Providing all of these services helps relieve some of the pressure from employees, reducing service bottlenecks.

Service robots can roam the terminal as employees stay at the service desk, maximizing their reach. If someone has a problem too complicated for the machines to answer, they can direct them to the desk. Then, the robots can help passengers with more straightforward questions while employees handle the more demanding, complex issues.

Photo: Dallas Fort Worth International Airport

Reducing Manual Labor

Airport robotics can also take inspiration from other industries for how to apply automation efficiently. Just as manufacturers use automated material handling systems to transport materials through a warehouse, airports can automate manual tasks like baggage handling. These operations are typically simple, repetitive and potentially hazardous, making them ideal for automation.

The Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) put this concept into practice in 2019. Its robotic baggage handling system can move almost 450 bags per hour, transferring luggage between belts for international connecting flights. Automating this process frees human employees to help in other areas, letting the airport handle more activity with the same staff.

As technology advances, similar systems could load bags on and off of planes, too. Implementing robots in these once-manual processes will help airports expand faster. They could service more flights at the same time without waiting on lengthy hiring processes.

Photo: AirAsia

Automating Administrative and Regulatory Tasks

Airports involve more repetitive, non-value-adding tasks than manual labor, too. Administrative and regulatory tasks are essential but take time. For example, the approval process for transporting explosives like those in aircraft safety systems takes roughly 120 days on average. Filing the necessary paperwork throughout that process is straightforward yet time-consuming, making it ideal for automation.

Robotic process automation (RPA) uses software robots to handle administrative tasks like this. These programs can fill out and file paperwork, write employee schedules and more while workers focus on value-adding work. While each of these tasks seems insignificant, automating them adds up to considerable time savings overall.

AirAsia (AK) began to implement RPA in 2020 as part of its ongoing digital transformation initiative. The system automates document processing and data analytics so that workers can put their attention towards customer-facing services. While the company didn’t announce specific savings goals, they expect to see significant improvements within just 180 days in some areas.

PHL Food & Shops, the concessions program at Philadelphia International Airport, is piloting a contactless ordering system featuring robotic food delivery. Credit: Philadelphia International Airport.

Streamlining Customer Service

Airport robotics can also help improve the customer experience by making it more efficient. Large terminals make it easy for travelers to get lost, and walking to various facilities could take too much time. Robots can help by delivering items to passengers’ seats or providing transportation throughout the airport.

The concessions program at Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) recently became one of the first to test robots in this area. Their delivery robot, Gita, lets passengers order from 19 restaurants and retailers in the airport via an app, then brings their food to them. This ease of access improves customer comfort and satisfaction, encouraging further spending in the airport.

Transportation to different gates and terminals is another area where airport robotics can streamline customer service. Self-driving carts can ferry passengers between gates, helping them get where they need to go without walking long distances.

Complete with 5G connectivity, 360 sensors, front and rear cameras and space for carrying packages and supplies, robots such as Spot could operate in the field as part of emergency response, rescue or industrial inspection missions. Photo: Hans Christian Anderson Airport

Expanding Airport Safety

As one of the air travel industry’s most critical considerations, safety is another ideal application for airport robotics. Airport security workers are often busy employees, so automating some of their tasks with robots lets them retain focus and help more people.

Mt. Fuji Shizuoka Airport (FSZ) in Tokyo launched a security robot called Reborg-Z in 2019. Reborg-Z has a 360-degree camera equipped with facial recognition technology. It can spot suspects, recognize signs of distress like screaming and automatically alert security personnel. Reborg-Z also features sensors to detect smoke and fire.

Similarly, Hans Christian Anderson Airport (ODE) in Odense, Denmark, recently tested a 5G-powered security robot for perimeter security checks. The multi-camera-equipped bot can send real-time data to security officials as it walks throughout the property. The airport believes they could also use it for rescue or emergency response situations too.

Photo: CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

Airport Robotics Are Ready to Disrupt the Industry

As more airports apply robotics in these areas, the air travel industry will become safer, more comfortable and efficient. Airports looking for ways to innovate and improve should look to incorporate robots in these use cases. They’ll see positive returns on investment before long and meet the world’s rising efficiency needs.

Article written by tech journalist Emily Newton. She is Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, an online magazine exploring the latest innovations.

Featured image: Jue Huang @klalive via Unsplash