Good morning. Welcome to British Airways. Where can I take you?” The crisp female voice might belong to any woman working for BA, but it’s a robot cruising around London’s Heathrow Airport.
The carrier is trying out a pair of autonomous robots that can guide passengers around Terminal 5. It’s one of the latest examples of increasing automation at airports including advanced intelligent machines that interact with passengers.
Terminal 5 is Heathrow’s busiest, with some 32.8 million passengers on 210,723 flights in 2018. The following year, BA installed 80 automated bag-drop machines in the facility; it also has experimented with self-driving luggage vehicles. The carrier says automation in the terminal has reduced the number of lineups and made journeys faster and smoother.
To make the new robots more user-friendly, they’ve both been named Bill after Captain E. H. “Bill” Lawford, who flew the U.K.’s first international scheduled passenger flight, from Middlesex to Paris, in 1919.
“We are always looking for new and innovative ways to use automation to help our customers enjoy a faster and smoother journey through the airport and beyond,” says Ricardo Vidal, head of innovation at BA.
“These smart robots are the latest innovation allowing us to free up our people to deal with immediate issues and offer that one-on-one service we know our customers appreciate. In the future, I envisage a fleet of robots working side-by-side with our people, offering a truly seamless travel experience.”
The pair of waist-high robots from London-based BotsAndUs can communicate with passengers in multiple languages and can provide real-time flight information. They can also guide people to service desks, oversized luggage check-in counters, self-service check-ins, bag drops, cafes and other facilities in the terminal.
The machines are based on the company’s Bo robot, which has an 11-inch display and sensors including 3D LIDAR, ultrasonic, infrared and vision. It can autonomously navigate and avoid obstacles and has a lithium-ion battery with eight hours of power on a full charge.
“Automation has already significantly changed how airports function, across all areas of operation — from passenger services to luggage maneuvering, security and many more,” says Andrei Danescu, co-founder and CEO of BotsAndUs. “What we see as a key next step is actually bringing all these together so they can communicate and collaborate with each other, offering a seamless and safe experience from the car park to boarding the flight.”
Heathrow isn’t the only airport trying to roll out robots. They’ve appeared at airports in places like LaGuardia, Munich and Seoul. Robots or autonomous machines are part of pilot projects at 40% of airlines and make up major programs at 14% of carriers, according to the 2019 Air Transport IT Insights survey, published by industry association SITA.
It reported in 2018 that nearly half the world’s airlines and almost a third of airports want to investigate robotics and automated vehicles in the next three years. Industry players are trying out various kinds of machines that serve different purposes.
The trend is expected to pick up momentum through the decade, especially as more robots are used for mundane tasks. By 2030, robots are expected to have replaced check-in processes, according to a report published this year by U.K.-based inventory management company Vero Solutions. More upcoming technologies, to improve the services in airports, are currently in testing and passengers will soon be seeing end-to-end transformations across the flying experience.
In Japan, a leading maker of factory automation robots, at least six airports have been or are planning robot trials. These include robots that can clean concourses and provide towing services at Narita Airport near Tokyo, which has seen a surge in travelers ahead of the Olympic Games in 2020.
Also serving the capital, Haneda Airport recently introduced 12 new cleaning robots in four models, and is also experimenting with self-driving buses. Osaka’s Kansai International Airport has experimented with KATE, a mobile check-in kiosk developed by SITA that can automatically move to congested areas in an airport to reduce wait times.
Robots also being introduced outside Japan’s large cities amid worker shortages and an aging population. In April 2019, Mt. Fuji Shizuoka Airport southwest of Tokyo launched Reborg-Z, a guiding and security robot with a 360-degree camera and a large display.
It can tell passengers how to get around in Japanese, Chinese, Korean and English, and can use AI technology to recognize faces as well as signs of an emergency such as screaming. Reborg-Z also has fire and smoke sensors and can communicate with other Reborg-Z units as well as human security staff.
“We’ve received positive feedback from customers because our robots operate in a very stable manner,” says Morihisa Shinya, a spokesman for ALSOK, whose robots can be seen patrolling in Tokyo office buildings and shopping malls. “Passengers have also reacted well and they’re actually using the display on the robots to get information.”
Japan’s SoftBank, meanwhile, has been pushing humanoid robots as entertainers and guides. Thousands of units of its Pepper robot have been deployed in shops, banks and other facilities in Japan and abroad. It’s also working at airport restaurants in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Montreal, chatting with prospective customers and suggesting dishes.
“Part of our goal with Pepper is to draw travelers into our restaurant to relax and unwind before their flights,” says Lina Mizerek, a spokesperson for HMSHost, which runs the eateries. “Pepper adds an entertaining experience for our guests and has helped further increase foot traffic to the restaurant from travelers who otherwise may have gone straight to their gate.”
Robots that serve passengers, however, aren’t always the right fit for airlines or airports. Spencer is a humanoid guidance robot that took three years to develop and program, involving multiple European universities, France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. In a project co-funded by the European Commission, Dutch carrier KLM tried out Spencer in 2016, having it scan boarding passes and guide passengers to their departure gates. It didn’t work out.
People still prefer human customer service over automation in nearly all aspects of air travel, according to a 2019 online survey of over 2,000 U.S. travelers by OAG, a global travel data provider. It found that “only 19% see value in interactive robots for concierge services and travel information.”
There’s a common misconception that AI systems can already understand and react to all situations, and passengers can be disappointed when robots can’t fulfill their requests, notes Norm Rose, senior technology and corporate travel analyst at Phocuswright, a travel industry research firm.
Successful implementation of robotics at airports will depend on the seamless and efficient transition from a robot to a human. Robots should also start with simple tasks.
“As we have seen across the technology landscape, automation is most effective when it augments human services or provides simple services that can replace the basic tasks of a human,” says Rose. “If your job is to wait by the gate and direct people to the correct area, your job will be replaced.”
Baggage loading and unloading is another task that could be automated, says Rose, pointing to a prototype box-handling robot from Boston Dynamics as an example. In a 2019 study predicting that robots will replace up to 20 million manufacturing jobs by 2030, analysis firm Oxford Economics cited airport baggage handling as an example of robots playing a greater role in the service economy. But although the technology is ready, the cost is prohibitive—for now.
“Robots will need to become more mainstream to drive the cost down to consider replacements of ground handlers,” says Rose, adding that automation will change airport services in other ways. “If I have a complex ticket and the flight cancels, chances are I will still need a human agent, though providing that agent with AI supported technology to optimize the rebooking process, can be another example of AI applied to the travel experience, though not as sexy as a robot.”