Flight Plan

The airports of the future…

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on January 22, 2018

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… could be closer than you imagined, courtesy SITA Lab, writes Ashwini Phadnis

You may miss the smiles, but not the long waits. The flying cars promised by science fiction may not have materialised but SITA Lab — the technology research arm of travel operator SITA — is working on innovations that could soon make humans redundant at airline check-in counters. Instead, a flier will have a robot to ensure trouble-free check-ins.

The robot, however, will do a lot more. Targeted at premium-class passengers, it will wait as a passenger gets off his chauffeur-driven car. “You scan your boarding card on the robot’s scanner which verifies that you are on a flight and that yours is a valid boarding pass. The robot will then open the luggage hold and the passenger can put his bags on the robot which will then give him a receipt. The passenger can walk straight in and spend time and money in the duty-free shops. The robot will go directly to the baggage handling system,” says Stephane Cheikh, Innovation Manager at SITA Lab.

The robot has been built to go around obstructions and in case it accidentally touches something, it stops for a minute or two before restarting its journey. “At the moment one robot has been built which is capable of going from point A to point B and help a passenger with check in,” says Cheikh.  With business class passengers being allowed to travel with two suitcases each weighing up to 32 kilos, the robot, which took six months for a polytechnic firm in Lausanne to make, has been designed to carry at least that much weight.

 “The cost was about $50,000 but as more are built we expect the costs to come down,” Cheikh says, adding that it will be “another two-three years” before the project is up and running.

Pilot mode 

Currently SITA Lab is looking for an airline to pilot the robot in a live environment. Initially, the idea was to try it at the Dusseldorf airport in Germany with a leading global airline. But with the airline delaying this experiment, the worry was that the technology could get outdated. This pushed SITA Lab to look at other airports. The prototype has been tested at Dusseldorf airport though.

 Cheikh says the robot might not be required in the subcontinent, where there are many people looking for jobs, but in certain other parts of the world, such as Germany, where labour is expensive. Airlines for one will love it as they will have to employ fewer at check-in counters.

Explaining further, Cheikh says that checking in baggage is cumbersome — the bags have to be weighed, someone has to put on the tags, after which the bags go through the normal screening process before being loaded on to the flight. In comparison, the robot goes straight to the baggage handling system, simplifying the processes.

Fliers too will be happy. “In Germany we spoke to a lady who said sometimes she flew with her two kids and four bags. She parked her car and then went looking for a trolley with her kids and bags,” says Cheikh. “Imagine if as soon as she got into the parking lot she could order a robot? The robot will know where she has parked and so it will know her exact location. She can put her luggage on the robot and just walk with her kids inside the airport.” There is also the possibility that the next time you check into a hotel near the airport you will be able to call a robot which will pick up your bags and head to the airport leaving you with the option of arriving just in time to catch your flight.

SITA, which invests 7 per cent of its annual revenues in research and development, says that with the current focus on everything mobile, application programming interfaces (APIs) and air transport industry standards, SITA Lab has helped create many world-firsts in air travel — from the first mobile in-flight applications to the first iPad-based kiosks for plane tickets.

Smart is in

The Geneva-based company is also exploring wearable technology, including Google Glass, smart watches and smart jewellery.

“The recent research within this area has been on the Apple Watch where SITA Lab has provided a workforce solution that pushes regular operational alerts to duty managers and ensures that operations run smoothly. The Apple Watch is linked to SITA’s Airport Management System (AMS). With the Apple Watch, duty managers may get an alert to say that two planes are arriving simultaneously and have been assigned to the same gate or that there is a delay at a certain gate,” SITA says.  Another technology that the Lab is excited about is Beacons. Beacons allow mobile apps to listen for signals from devices in the physical world and react accordingly. In essence, it allows apps to understand their position on a micro-local scale, and deliver customised content to users based on location.

Beacons do three things: provide a passenger’s exact location, the proximity of things close by and guess the passenger’s intent. For instance, if a passenger is in the arrival hall, there is the general assumption that he is waiting to pick up someone and so the beacon will provide him details of arriving flights.

 “The beacon does not send anything. The only thing it does is emit its identity and everything is done on the mobile application. The mobile application looks for the beacon number, goes to the registry and in a millisecond gets back with details,” says Cheikh.

 SITA Lab has developed a Common Use Beacon Registry and is working with leading airports, airlines and industry bodies like the International Air Transport Association and the Airports Council International to define standards around how to deploy and use beacons.     

Cheikh gives his own example to show how beacons can help a passenger. “Yesterday I came from London to Mumbai and then to Goa.  I was in the new Terminal 2 in Mumbai.  I wanted to eat something but did not know where the food court was so I had to ask someone. But if the airport had beacons…” he trails off.

  According to Cheikh, the entire mobile App is changed depending on where a person is in the airport.   In Kuala Lumpur, beacons also give the user information on how long the lines are for security. At the moment, no Indian airline or airport offers the beacon system.

(The writer was in Goa at the invitation of SITA)

Published on November 17, 2015

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