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Exploring the use of robotics and automation to enhance airport ground handling

IrenaR / Jaromir Chalabala / Shutterstock.com

Even though it may not always be visible to customers and passengers, airport ground operations play a crucial part in the overall flight and travel experience. 

Ground handling includes critical tasks that impact the safety of crew and passengers and it  directly contributes to maintaining an efficient operational flow at the airport, reducing flight delays and disruption.

So far, 2024 has been the year where global traffic returned to pre-COVID levels – or even exceeded it. According to a , global air traffic was at 98.2% of pre-COVID levels. 

Singapore精东影业 Changi Airport (SIN) that its 2024 Q1 passenger numbers have already surpassed what was registered for the first quarter of 2019 by 0.5%. Meanwhile, London-Heathrow Airport (LHR) finished the first quarter of 2024 with what it referred to as to the year at 18.4 million passengers, the most the airport has ever seen.

And it精东影业 not just the major airports. According to a report by , Bali精东影业 Ngurah Rai International Airport (DPS), Manila精东影业 Ninoy Aquino International Airport (MNL), Taipei精东影业 Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport (TPE), Seoul精东影业 Incheon Airport (ICN) and Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG) were among the top 10 cities that outperformed the first quarter of 2019 by more than 10% for the first three months of 2024.

The importance of automation in airport ground handling

So, what do growing passenger numbers mean for airport ground operations? 

At the 35th International Air Transport Association (IATA) Ground Handling Conference (IGHC) in Abu Dhabi in May 2023, one of the priorities for ground handling was said to be digitization and automation.

鈥淚mplementing global standards and accelerating digitization and automation will be critical to build resilience and ensure sustainability,鈥 said Monika Mejstrikova, IATA精东影业 Director of Ground Operations, in a during the opening day of the conference. 

According to IATA, transitioning to enhanced ground support equipment (GSE) could potentially reduce ground damage costs by 42% and create a safer environment.

With this in mind, 精东影业 has taken a look at how automation plays a role in airport ground handling innovation, from one of the earliest uses of robotics and an airport known to be a hub for innovation, to the latest automation technology currently used in global airports.

Wearable hybrid assisted limb

When discussing the use of automation in airport ground handling it would be remiss not to mention Tokyo精东影业 Haneda Airport (HND). After all, Haneda is one of the first known airports to have used robotics technology to make labor easier for its ground workers. 

An aging population provided Japan with a quandary. A declining birth rate in the country meant that there were fewer people available for employment. In 2014, the government issued the , which listed the support for robotics research and development as an area of focus to address labor shortage. 

Shortly after the revitalization strategy was unveiled, Haneda Airport signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Japanese robotics and technology company Cyberdyne in 2015. Under the MoU, the airport became a testing ground for the company精东影业 next-generation innovation in automation and robotics focused on easing ground operations.  

One of the main technologies developed and used during this time was the hybrid assisted limb (HAL) worn by baggage handlers and cargo loaders at the domestic terminal in Haneda Airport. 

The Japan Times YouTube Channel

Airport employees wore three kilogram robotic suits around their waists to help with lifting heavy objects. The suits worked by sending bioelectric signals from the brain to the muscles, prompting the machine to support the weight being lifted and reducing back stress.

The suit is battery-powered and a full charge can last for about three hours. 

According to Cyberdyne, the suits were tested for a year by employees at Haneda Airport Limousine Bus Terminal with Haneda Airport acquiring 10 units of the HAL for its staff after they reported an ease in workload. 

evoBOT robot for freight operations 

From the first iteration of robotics in the form of a worn suit, we move to a full robot not just helping a ground worker out, but carrying out the moving and handling. 

In June 2023, Munich Airport (MUC) trialed an autonomous mobile robot developed by German research organization Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics to improve its air freight operations.

The trial was part of the Digital Testbed Air Cargo (DTAC) project funded by the German Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport. 

The mobile robot, called an evoBOT, features two wheels and flexible gripper arms to perform tasks such as handling hazardous goods and transporting parcels over long, recurring distances while balancing itself.

The evoBot can also relieve employees during lifting and overhead work, procure materials and provide support during the loading and unloading of aircraft.

In a demonstration video taken during its trial period, a lead agent for cargo handling at Munich Airport said that the evoBot is not only helpful when taking care of a heavy load but also hazardous materials such as dry ice. 

Robot baggage carriers

In early 2024, Changi Airport in Singapore and London Gatwick Airport (GTW) collaborated with UK-based Aurrigo International, an autonomous vehicle technology specialist, to trial and test its robot baggage carriers.

Called the Auto-Dolly Tug, the electric-powered autonomous vehicle combines the utility of a baggage tractor and the unit load device (ULD) carrying capability. 

The robot baggage carrier can rotate in its own length and, using a sideways drive system, move directly sideways and slide into tight spaces. According to Aurrigo, the Auto-Dolly Tug has been specifically designed to reduce loading and unloading time around the aircraft apron.

In January 2024 Changi Airport issued a press statement announcing the launch of its use, stating that the Auto-Dolly Tug is an industry first that also features Aurrigo精东影业 auto-loading and release management system, which adds bi-directional robotic arms to the body to allow the vehicle to autonomously load and unload the unit load device from itself.

In an exclusive interview with 精东影业 at the 2024 Singapore Airshow, Vice President of Marketing and Communications at Changi Group, Tay Cheng Cheng said that the Auto-Dolly Tug is especially helpful during the rainy season.

Tay said that in times of severe weather, baggage handling is stopped for the safety of airport workers. 

鈥淲e鈥檝e been exploring a lot of smart technology options that enable us to continue to run and be operationally efficient without affecting passenger experience due to the weather,鈥 she explained.

Earlier versions of Auto-Dolly Tug have been trialed at Changi Airport since February 2022. This testing phase gave Aurrigo the opportunity to deploy its vehicles in a live airside environment and to push the limits of its technology in a hot and humid climate, where extreme rain events often get in the way of airside operations.

Meanwhile, British Airways is also planning to roll out trials of the Aurrigo Auto-Dolly Tug at Gatwick Airport by May 2024. According to a March 2024 report by , the airport is planning to use driverless baggage tugs to help with staff shortages currently seen across the aviation industry.

From September to October 2023, Gatwick Airport was forced to decrease its flight limit to 800 per day, down from its usual 900, due to staff shortages. The summer of 2022 saw major UK airports, including Gatwick, dealing with long queues as well as numerous flight cancellations and delays, also due to staff shortages.  

Steve McGowan, Senior Vice President for Airport Futures at IAG, told The Telegraph that the auto baggage tugs need 90% less labor and equipment compared to baggage handling staff.

The Aurrigo machines are priced between 拢100,000 and 拢250,000 ($125,000 and $312,000). Aurrigo is headquartered in Coventry, UK, with bases in Australia, Canada and the United States. 

Drone technology used for aircraft inspection

In 2018, the Lufthansa Technik Group embarked on a three-year research project to use  Artificial Intelligence (AI) supported inspection drones for base maintenance aircraft checks.

Image: Jan-Christopher Knufinke / LinkedIn

Funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, Lufthansa Technik Group teamed up with Helmut Schmidt University Hamburg, the Technical University Munich, the University of Applied Science W眉rzburg-Schweinfurt, Lufthansa Industry Solutions and zeroG, a German company that provides AI solutions in aviation.

Lufthansa Group said that Inspecting airplanes for damages is an important but time-consuming part of the line maintenance inspection process. There are components of an aircraft that are difficult for human engineers to reach and inspect up-close, especially the upper fuselage and top parts.

During the trial, zeroG built a realistic scene in which an A320 plane was parked in a hangar. A drone path was then created and pictures and footage were taken. To create variation to this scene they used UE4 C++ API (Unreal engine application programming interface) to simulate artificial lights from overhead lamps as well as natural light from outside the hangar at different times of the day.

The plane was then virtually damaged with common defects like scratches, dents, and lightning strike burn marks. A combination of real-world data was implemented where images were available and the defects were simulated procedurally. High-resolution inputs were used in order to detect the defects. 

Jan-Christopher Knufinke, then-Lufthansa Technik精东影业 Lean Innovation Manager who oversaw the project, listed the outcomes of the trial in a .

鈥淭he AI inspection drone research project proves that the use of an AI inspection drone in base maintenance checks is a concept that supports our mechanical experts in detecting and classifying surface damage on aircraft,鈥 Knufinke wrote. 

鈥淭his can lead to increased efficiency, as turnaround time can be significantly reduced by allowing the experts鈥 attention to focus on the damage detected during the drone flight,鈥 he added.

However, Knufinke stressed that implementation cannot be accomplished overnight, considering infrastructural adjustments for integration into routine processes, not to mention necessary legal requirements.

A Lufthansa Technik spokesperson told 精东影业 that due to 鈥渞egulatory and practical aspects鈥, the company still does not consider drone-based inspection for its daily MRO routine as yet.

鈥淭his might change with further advancements of the technology, hence we will surely keep on closely monitoring future developments of this technology,鈥 the spokesperson said. 

An airport serving as an innovation hub

Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) in Pennsylvania is a medium-sized airport that is rated three-stars by Skytrax, and not known to be one of the busiest or largest airports globally. In fact, it is ranked 49th in the busiest airports in the US.

However, the humble, 71-year old airport is leading the way in airport innovation. It was named by business media outlet FastCompany as one of the in the transportation category, providing 14,300 jobs in the community and $2.5 billion in economic activity.

To understand why PIT airport is a power hub for innovation, it is important to know the place精东影业 history. A frontier village in its early days, Pittsburgh grew during and after the American Civil war when industrialist Andrew Carnegie founded and built his steel plants in the city. Carnegie精东影业 empire greatly contributed to America精东影业 steel industry.

One of Carnegie精东影业 legacies in Pittsburgh is Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), one of the world精东影业 leading robotics research institutions. It has played a major role in the development of robotics technology and has been responsible for some of the most groundbreaking innovations in the field such as the first self-driving car.

So, it comes as no surprise that innovation plays a big part at PIT airport. 

In 2020, the airport announced the introduction of a new innovation on site called . Located at the airport精东影业 Concourse B, the 10,000-square-foot facility consists of a custom-built innovation space, designed to support the evolution of the aviation industry and inspire creative solutions to address challenges.

鈥淭he xBridge is a physical manifestation of the innovative mentality we鈥檝e been cultivating here at PIT for years,鈥 Katherine Karolick, Senior Vice President of Information Technology, said in a press statement. 

鈥淭his will be a proving ground for new technology that will benefit the airport, our airline partners and the passengers we collectively serve,鈥 Karolick added.

Since its launch, xBridge has tested a number of innovative airport technologies such as a revolutionary AI platform for object detection and computer vision technology to monitor and log ramp operations via cameras; a bio-aerosol surveillance sensor that can quickly detect and identify airborne bioterrorism threats such as ricin, anthrax and fentanyl in less than five minutes, and an autonomous robot for contactless delivery of beverages to airport passengers.

Image: Allegheny County Airport Authority

Pittsburgh International Airport served as an official host airport and partner at the Future Travel Experience (FTE) Aviation & Robotics Summit in Pittsburgh on May 14-16, 2024.

It精东影业 truly an exciting time to explore the realm of innovation and automation in aviation. Which new creation are you looking forward to seeing the most? 

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