Autonomous aircraft, vehicles and robots are set to revolutionise airside operations and the passenger experience
Automation is gradually replacing manual activities and processes across the aviation industry, with sophisticated IT systems which encompass artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, intelligent mapping and navigation software, and reliable network connectivity providing the foundation for its development and penetration.
Some travellers may find the declining absence of, and interaction with, humans within their passenger experience unsettling in the short term. But replacing specific roles with technology that is invariably cheaper to deploy and maintain in the long term is high on the list for airlines, airports and ground handling companies. And in some cases, using innovative, IT enabled robots and other digital systems will inevitably open up new streams of revenue for companies able to identify new applications and use cases that couldn’t have existed with manual operations.
Sophisticated mapping and operational software is behind the unmanned aircraft being developed for commercial use in airports for example. It may represent a considerable leap of faith for any passenger to board any form of aircraft without a pilot but prototype autonomous air taxis are already being built and tested.
Boeing’s experimental autonomous aircraft, developed by subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences, competed its first test flight earlier this year in the US, with the manufacturer having initially earmarked the technology for the transportation of passengers, baggage and cargo between terminals and airports.
German companies Fraport and Volocopter GmbH too are currently putting together designs for autonomous drones intended to transfer passengers between Frankfurt airport and other transport hubs, such as train stations and taxi ranks, in the city and wider Frankfurt/Rhine-Main region. Volocopter has built prototype electrically-powered vertical take-off “multicopters” able to carry two people intended to form a self-flying electric air taxi service.
The Volocopter project is part of Frankfurt airport’s cutting edge FRADrones 2020 program, which is currently exploring the use of autonomous robots, including drones to improve airport operations – particularly in ground infrastructure, ground handling, and terminal and passenger services. Safety is understandably paramount and all tests involving drones and unmanned flying will be conducted in close co-operation with responsible authorities and the Deutsche Flugsicherung, which governs air traffic control in Germany.
[subhead] Automating air traffic control
Honeywell has begun developing new flight-control and detect-and-avoid systems for future urban air mobility vehicles, initially destined to aid navigation in electrical vertical take-off (eVTOL) aircraft being developed in partnership with light aircraft manufacturer Pipistrel.
Both companies envisage that the vehicle can transition to fully autonomous operations in the future, with Honeywell focussed on making sure its software can be adapted and upgraded for that purpose when the time comes.
Another new communications technology which could help meet stringent aviation safety requirements for unmanned aircraft systems in the future is the forthcoming automated dependent surveillance broadcast (ADS-B). Considered a modern, digital replacement for RADAR, ADS-B uses GPS satellite signals to send data to the aircraft’s avionic systems which employs analytics software software to interpret the data to gain a pinpoint picture of the aircraft’s location, speed, altitude and over 40 other parameters in real time. The onboard GPS transmitter then forwards the relevant information on both to ADS-B ground stations (which in turn transmit it to air traffic control) and also other aircraft in vicinity to optimise situational awareness for pilots.
The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has mandated that all aircraft that want to fly in US airspace must be equipped with ADS-B Out transponders by 1st January 2020, while ADS-B In functions that allow aircraft to receive traffic and weather information on digital cockpit displays, tablet computers or other digital devices remain optional for the moment.
Automating baggage handling
The Airport Authority of Hong Kong (AAHK) is the latest to trial autonomous vehicle technology for baggage having started trials of Vanderlande Industries’ FLEET solution in March this year (2019). Netherlands headquartered Vanderlande was acquired by Toyota Industries Corporation for €1.2bn in March 2017 as the Japanese forklift manufacturer expanded its materials handling business. The Dutch company to operate as a wholly owned subsidiary and provide its automated material handling systems for airports under its own brand, with Toyota building a new generation of automated vehicles including baggage pods and towing tractors.
FLEET replaces the need for fixed conveyors and sorting systems, with each individual autonomous vehicle carrying a single bag and using sophisticated mapping and GPS software to determine the most optimal route through an airport. It is estimated that FLEET consumes up to 50% less energy compared to traditional baggage handling systems whilst simultaneously offering scope for reduced staff costs. The system also helps real-time track and trace of individual bags without requiring the bags themselves to be fitted with electronic tags. Vanderlande expects to have additional trials at two other airports up and running by Autumn this year, having already conducted tests at Rotterdam.
British Airways (BA) too is working with an unnamed supplier to trial and develop automated baggage trailers that will transport containers from baggage areas to the aircraft.
Automating staff transfers and pushback
Nor is it just passenger bag transportation by autonomous vehicles which could help ground support companies improve their operational efficiency. Other developments involve the use of driverless cars to ferry baggage handlers and other staff between airfield locations.
Gatwick Airport announced plans for a trial in partnership with Oxbotica – a specialist in autonomous vehicle software company – to provide electric driverless vehicles that shuttle workers between the airports North and South Terminals.
British Airways too is investigating how the use of autonomous vehicles could help with airside operations. It is working in partnership with its Anglo-Spanish parent company International Airlines Group (IAG) to trial driverless cars for staff transfers and electric taxis to shuttle premium customers between aircraft during in-flight transfers.
Oxbotica has already conducted trials of its technology on London streets, and sees future roles for driverless wagons as baggage transport vehicles, passenger load bridges and even pushback tugs should safety regulations allow.
BA has been using Mototok SPACER 8600 and SPACER 195 electric tugs for pushback on aircraft weighing up to 195 tons since 2017, and hopes to have extend their use to passenger carrying flights this year . While the Mototoks are remotely controlled by ground support staff for the moment, the manufacturer expects these vehicles to be completely autonomous in the future, using GPS and locational sensors to position themselves precisely, pushback at a perfectly regulated pace, and return themselves to docking stations when finished.
The international Air Transport Association has identified up to 40 other roles which driverless vehicles could help to improve operational efficiency, including automated cargo loading/offloading, refuelling and catering/GPU/baggage handling.
Robotic innovation also extends to passenger car parking. Gatwick Airport signed a framework contract with Stanley Robotics which will see the two companies trial a driverless robot that parks passenger vehicles without requiring the owner to hand over their keys. Starting in the second half of 2019, travellers will be able leave their cars in one of 270 reserved spaces in an interim car park close to Gatwick’s South Terminal before the robot lifts them up and moves them to a secure facility.
A real time connection to the airport’s flight information system informs the robot when to return the car to the interim parking space upon the passenger’s return and sends an SMS to their smartphone confirming delivery. Stanley Robotics estimate its valet robots can create up to 50% of additional parking capacity in the same space as a conventional car park that requires passengers to drive into their own spaces. The company already manages 500 spaces at Lyon-Saint Exupery Airport and aims to expand that number to 1,000 this year. It eventually hopes to have over 20 robots managing 6,500 parking spaces.
People can be any companies greatest resource, one reason why it can make sense to optimise their time and trust simple, repetitive tasks to artificial intelligence (AI) robots powered by machine learning algorithms.
Aeromexico had added a baggage tracking service to its chatbot – dubbed Aerobot – which lets customers use WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger query the location of their baggage without human intervention. Able to understand both English and Spanish, Aerobot was first launched in 2016 but has been updated to link into SITA’s WorldTracer baggage tracing and matching system to provide misplaced baggage assistance through smartphones alongside information on flight departures and arrivals, documentation requirements and baggage allowances.
Other airlines, including Virgin Australia, are integrating their flight systems with Amazon’s Alexa AI engine, allowing passengers to use voice commands to check-in for their flights by linking a downloadable Alexa Skill with their premium airline membership account.
And elsewhere the FRADrones 2020 program in Frankfurt has introduced a passenger assistance robot which can provide information in English and German on request, built in partnership with DB Systel and Furhat Robotics.