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Robot baggage handlers, biometric scanners and more airport upgrades coming soon

Last year, Vice President Joe Biden compared New York’s LaGuardia Airport to a third world country.

That may be a sad comment about the current state of the nation’s airport infrastructure, but they’re getting better. Facilities across the country and the world are making improvements to meet the growing demands of modern air travel – and technology is playing a central role.

According to SITA, 97 percent of passengers will carry a mobile device.

According to the 2014 annual report from SITA, a firm that specializes in airport IT, 59 percent of airports surveyed ranked information technology and telecommunications (IT&T) as a high priority, and airport officials are funneling money that direction. Spas, lounges, and kids’ play areas may be nice extras, but considering 97 percent of passengers carry mobile devices, amenities like Wi-Fi and charging stations are essential.

Airports are also relying on technology to help them with processing passengers in and out of the airport, security, and operations – the top three focus areas. These include RFID baggage handling, biometric scanners, and self-service kiosks that handle check-in and baggage. Behind the scenes, improved telecommunications can help airport operations run smoother, and eco-conscious tech features can make airports greener.

Here are some of those technologies that are being invested for the future of air travel.

More self-service kiosks

If you’ve traveled during the holidays, you may have encountered long lines to check in. To help alleviate congestion, SITA says more airports are adding self-service check-in kiosks. Two out of five airports plan to increase the number, and 92 percent of airports will utilize them within three years; by 2017, 72 percent of passengers are expected to use these kiosks. And, many airports are now letting passengers self-tag their check-in luggage; SITA says unassisted bag drop will rise to 62 percent in 2017.

McCarran International in Las Vegas is viewed as a model for self-service kiosks in airports. It has already adopted a common-use system where a single kiosk serves multiple airlines, removing the need to check-in at a specific area of the terminal. While you’ll still need to go to an airline’s counter to drop off bags, airports like McCarran are moving toward more resource sharing between airlines to maximize efficiency. This could mean the sharing of baggage services, counters, computer systems, and even gates.

While airports will still need real people, there may be fewer of them needed as more passengers move toward self-service, if SITA’s projections are accurate.

More connectivity

Of course, savvy connected travelers are also using their mobile devices to check in even before they reach the airport, among other air travel-related services. Airports are aware of this: SITA says more than 70 percent of the world’s top 50 airports are putting money into cloud- and geo-location-based technologies, as well as enhanced Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and RFID. Nascent tech like iBeacon, NFC, and wearables are also being explored. These technologies can help improve information delivery to both passengers and airport personnel, and eventually replace outdated wired infrastructure.

Many of the world’s top airports are implementing cloud- and geo-location-based wireless technologies.

Last October, Miami International Airport became the first airport to use Apple’s iBeacon technology, which can deliver the most precise information to passengers’ iPhones and iPads, such as delays, arrivals, boardings, etc. With iBeacon, the airport can push a map of a passenger’s gate area to his/her device after dropping off baggage, for example. This personalized service is also being used by American Airlines at Dallas-Fort Worth and Virgin Atlantic at London Heathrow.

Wi-Fi will also get better. Boingo Wireless, a major airport hotspot service provider, announced last year that it has launched Hotspot 2.0 at 21 U.S. airports, including busy terminals at Chicago O’Hare, Los Angeles International, and New York Kennedy. Hotspot 2.0 is touted as a more secure network that allows for simpler sign-on.

The number of lost or mishandled bags has dropped by half. As airports become more connected, they can utilize RFID-based “smart bag tags” that provide improved baggage handling and tracking. So even if your bag doesn’t make it down the carousel, these tags could help you locate it quicker. Airports in Las Vegas, Hong Kong and Denmark have already implemented the technology.

Robots to the rescue

Last year, Indianapolis International Airport rolled out the Double Robot to assist with customer service. Rolling around the airport, passengers can ask for directions or other guest-service-related questions (the robot actually connects passengers with a real human, who communicates through an attached tablet).

But robots are being used for operations efficiency too. An airplane-towing system, called the TaxiBot, lets pilots remotely pull the plane to and from a gate from a cockpit. In Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, six robotic arms automatically load baggage onto carts while entertaining passengers who watch them work.

The coolest use might just be the robotic valet at Dusseldorf Airport, already one of Germany’s more high-tech airports. The robot automatically measures the size of a car and then moves it to a reserved parking spot. It can even tap into a passenger’s return trip information, so it can pull the car out and have it ready.

Quicker boarding

We’ve already mentioned self-service kiosks, but Lufthansa has also been using Quick Boarding machines at gates in several airports in Germany. For passengers with a special electronic ticket, the Quick Boarding gates let them, as the name suggests, board a plane quicker than the conventional means. Self-boarding gates are also being utilized at Singapore’s Changi, Boston’s Logan, and McCarran in Las Vegas.

These gates are a component of seamless travel, where passengers can take care of everything from check-in to boarding. In the future, passengers could, in theory, even clear security faster by using biometrics and high-tech baggage scanners (although, with security a primary concern, we can’t see this happening anytime soon). The goal is to allow for efficient handling of passengers as their numbers grow, with minimal staff required or repositioning personnel to handle more important things. This becomes crucial in an airport that can’t provide full services, like Kuala Lumpur’s new low-cost terminal.

Earth friendlier

Air travel undeniably generates a hefty carbon footprint, but new building designs and practices are helping airports get greener. San Francisco International’s Terminal 2 was the first to be recognized with LEED Gold certification for energy efficiency and resource management. Indianapolis International claimed to have the largest airport solar farm when it turned it on in December 2014, which can power up to 1,410 homes for a year. Dusseldorf also installed solar panels to help generate energy for the airport. From San Diego to San Jose and Detroit, as new airports upgrade their facilities, they are keeping the environment in mind by lowering carbon emissions, using natural light, and minimizing energy waste.