Say Hello to the New Era of Airport Robots

Aug 12, 2018

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20th-century science-fiction authors imagined a future where we cohabited with humanoid robots, and they were right. But they did not imagine one thing: that the first places where humans and humanoids interacted would be airports.

Robots now do things like scan boarding passes and provide duty free shopping advice. For many people, this will be the very first chance to interact in an everyday context with robots designed to mimic human behavior.

Many of us have cleaning robots at home, of course. They are able to roam around, avoiding furniture and any other obstacle — and that’s kind of like one of the robots you’ll find at Seoul Incheon airport, one of the busiest in the world. With 57 million passengers per year and thousands of moving objects at any one time, ICN is a tough debut for the cleaning robot made by South Korea’s LG Electronics, which looks like a curvier version of Star Wars’ famous R2D2 and has been doing its job at the airport for more than a year.

The LG Airbot airport guide robot is presented at the LG press conference at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada on January 4, 2017. / AFP / DAVID MCNEW (Photo credit should read DAVID MCNEW/AFP/Getty Images)
The LG Airbot airport guide robot at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas (Photo by DAVID MCNEW/AFP/Getty Images)

The Airbot has a slightly taller sibling that focuses on providing guidance and advice to passengers. It is able to scan boarding passes and provide answers about things such as flight status and location of boarding gates.

In order to give it a more human appearance, LG engineers have fitted this guide robot with a “face” of sorts, as well as with voice recognition technology capable of handling the top four languages spoken at Incheon airport: Korean, English, Chinese and Japanese.

That is reminiscent of Spencer, the cute, smiling robot that KLM tested at Amsterdam Schiphol airport (AMS) in 2016 to help passengers find their way through this busy hub. One of the stated aims was not just to test a promising technology in a real airport setting, but also to assess how human passengers would react when they had to interact with a robot.

Although that was a one-off experiment, KLM has persevered with its robotic initiatives. In July the Dutch carrier unveiled Care-E, a self-driving trolley capable of moving up to 85 pounds of luggage at 3mph. To make interaction with humans more empathic, Care-E is able to emit non-verbal sounds in response to stimuli and has a set of lights that imitate eye movement. Care-E will be tested at JFK and San Francisco International (SFO) this year, with the specific dates yet to be announced.

Another airport where passengers are able to interact with robots is Delhi International (DEL) in India. This July, Vistara, a private Indian airline, has deployed its own robot at Vistara’s Signature Lodge at Terminal 3. The robot, called RADA, has been developed by Tata Innovation Lab (Vistara is jointly owned by Indian conglomerate Tata and Singapore Airlines.)

RADA has a chassis with four wheels enabling it to rotate 360 degrees, and three built-in cameras that give it awareness of its surroundings. It uses AI technology to address passengers’ queries after scanning their boarding passes, such as departure gates, flight status and weather at destination.

Interestingly it also has an entertainment aspect, as it is able not just to greet passengers as they come into the lounge, but also play games, music and other audiovisual content for them.

When it comes to anthropomorhic looks, though, there’s a clear winner: Josie Pepper, the robot operated by Lufthansa at its Munich (MUC) hub. Developed by French company Softbank Robotics, this 42-inch tall, English-speaking humanoid has been meeting and greeting passengers at key airport spot, the ramp leading to the satellite terminal shuttle. The airport decided to give it a gender — female — and a name that it says is inspired by the airport’s, which is called Franz Josef Strauss after the longtime Bavarian leader.

Robot Josie Pepper assists passengers travelling from the airport in Munich, Germany, 20 February 2018. Pepper is a humanoid robot programmed to analyse and emulate human gestures and facial expressions. Photo: Lino Mirgeler/dpa (Photo by Lino Mirgeler/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Josie Pepper assists passengers at the airport in Munich in February 2018 (Photo by Lino Mirgeler/picture alliance via Getty Images)

One of its defining features is that its artificial intelligence technology allows it to work without pre-scripted answers, and it keeps learning with each new interaction.

True, some of these projects may still feel like something of a publicity stunt. But, as happens often when the adoption of new, disruptive technologies accelerates, we’re likely to see a lot more airport robots soon, and we’ll see them do more and more useful things.

Featured image by Chiara Puzzo/picture alliance via Getty Images

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