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Published On: Mon, May 9th, 2016

The Future of Flight: How Airport Logistics is Taking the Robotics Industry Under Its Wings

When vice-president Joe Biden compared New York’s LaGuardia Airport to airports seen in the Third World, the comment was widely quoted, both for its harshness and the truth that it contained. Not only do American airports make do with ancient, inefficient and unreliable infrastructure, they tend to struggle with a basic ground handling problem as well – frequent labor action by baggage handlers and other airport workers. Strikes have been a huge challenge to the nation’s economic development.

Labor unrest is one of the reasons why airports in the US and across the world are beginning to turn to robots instead of conventional human ground handling staff. Industrial robots are well-suited to the repetitive, high-pressure environment of airport baggage handling. They also offer significant advantages against security threats, and the challenges of theft and pilferage. Robots, in addition, are significantly less prone to the kind of botch-ups and mistakes that conventional human-powered luggage handling that airports are currently known for.

While pretty airport environments, massage spas, shopping areas, libraries and Wi-Fi may be great advances for passenger satisfaction, airport authorities are beginning to realize that none of it means much without solid basics.

Ahkera baggage handling robot promo photo

Ahkera baggage handling robot promo photo

The baggage handling robots of Holland

Amsterdam’s Schiphol Europe’s fifth busiest airport, and has always been one of the most innovative on the continent. In its search for fast, efficient and reliable ground services, the airport has long been one of the early-adopters of technology on the continent. Their latest acquisition is a new integrated robot loading system that puts robots in charge of all the heavy lifting done behind the scenes. The new system has all luggage checked in at the counters picked up at the other by robotic arms. The robot automatically reads barcoded tags and radiofrequency signals from embedded chips on luggage to load them in the right containers and ramps with extraordinary speed.

Here’s what’s happening right in the US

According to Runway Bearing, a leading provider of cargo conveyor components, civilian airports in America haven’t yet invested in ground service robots. Outdated safety regulations are one reason. The regulations, though, do not extend to the military. According to Applioque, the Pentagon is even researching the possibility of ordering loading and unloading robots for automated military aircraft.

Even more impressively, they are beginning to create robotic pallets called Robo-pallets that load and unload themselves. These intelligent pallets come equipped with their own computers, motors and sensors. There is plenty of change afoot, and it’s beginning with the military. It’s only a matter of time before such technology appears in commercial airports in every corner of the country.

Innovations in Tokyo go even further

Schiphol’s robots only work behind the scenes; at Tokyo’s Haneda airport, on the other hand, they are right out front, waiting to help passengers with their luggage as they enter the terminal. Manufactured by Cyberdyne Systems (certainly an unfortunate choice of name for a robotics company), these robots take the place of conventional luggage trolleys. With capacity to carry 400 pounds, these little R2D2-like machines roll up when passengers arrive, allow them to place their bags in their carry space, and lead them to the right check-in counter. Once their job is done with a passenger, they autonomously roll back on their own to get started with the next passenger.

While Haneda doesn’t have Schiphol’s baggage handling robots behind the scenes, they have something that’s arguably even more impressive — robotic exoskeletons for human baggage handlers. These exoskeletons go on baggage handlers’ lower backs, read their nerve impulses, and help with bracing forces to make sure that there is never a back injury.

Robots can be everywhere, all at once

The deployment of robots to help passengers with is one of the latest trends in airport technology. Robots lead the way at many airports such as in Geneva and Düsseldorf. There are machines that offer directions, flight information, ticketing information and so on. To passengers trying to navigate a busy, unfamiliar airport, these services can be invaluable, especially since there tend to be many of these machines waiting around to help everyone in need.

With the great leaps made in robotics and digital communications over the past decade, airports today have no reason to limit themselves to the conventions of the past.

Guest Author :

Grace Douglas works airside at her local regional airport. A bit of a geek, Grace takes an interest in all aspects of upcoming technology, particularly when it relates to her job. She enjoys sharing her thoughts and opinions through her article writing.

About the Author

- Outside contributors to the Dispatch are always welcome to offer their unique voices, contradictory opinions or presentation of information not included on the site.

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