The sky’s the limit: how automation is transforming airside operations

From baggage screening and air traffic control to ground-handling and foreign object detection on runways, automation and Industry 4.0 is revolutionising airside operations. Julian Turner reports on some of the latest innovations and how they can help the industry rebuild in the wake of Covid-19.

Image: copyright

Worldwide lockdowns and travel bans to control the spread of Covid-19 have decimated the global aviation industry. IATA’s economic forecast in December 2020 revealed that airline losses in Europe in 2021 are expected to hit $11.9bn, while passenger traffic is estimated to have fallen 70% in 2020.

However, the pandemic is also an opportunity for airport operators, airlines, industry bodies and governments to build a better aviation industry - one where levels of safety, customer service and environmental responsibility are commensurate with the challenges of 21st century air travel. 

The application of robotics, machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics, to name a few, can help make this happen – to the ultimate benefit of all aviation industry stakeholders. Here, AIR takes a look at trends in airside automation, from air traffic control (ATC) to baggage screening.

Excess baggage: automating the security screening process

Baggage handling is a fundamental element of successful airside operations. Get it right, and no one notices; get it wrong, and most everyone does. The process of transporting passenger baggage to and from check-in, and on and off aircraft, is becoming increasingly automated, leading to more efficient staffing and operational efficiency, particularly in the realm of baggage security screening.  

At Detroit Metropolitan Airport, the DAIFUKU autonomous cart system helps increase the efficiency of the baggage screening process by relieving Transportation Security Officers of the task of moving checked bags. The cart delivers a flagged bag from a conveyor belt to an inspection station using set routes marked with magnetic tape, and then transfers the bag to another conveyor post-screening.

The FLEET autonomous checked baggage management system replaces the need for fixed conveyors and sorting systems.

The FLEET autonomous checked baggage management system from Dutch company Vanderlande replaces the need for fixed conveyors and sorting systems. Each individual vehicle carries a single bag and determines the most optimal route through an airport. FLEET has already been deployed at Rotterdam The Hague Airport, while, in February 2021, Charlotte Douglas International Airport in the US brought online its new security checkpoints featuring Vanderlande’s automated screening lanes.

In the UK, British Airways is partnering with London-based start-up BotsAndUs to test AI-powered autonomous robots at Heathrow Terminal 5 in order to further enhance punctuality for passengers.

Towers of strength: digitalising air traffic control

In the world of ATC, super-fast fibre networks, HD cameras and remote sensing technologies mean traditional manned airport towers are being supplemented – and in the future may even be replaced – by remote digital towers, such as those at the UK’s London City and Singapore’s Changi airports.

Camera masts transmit images to a separate control centre, providing a panoramic view of the airfield that can be enhanced with augmented reality-style maps and aircraft data for increased controller awareness. In the UK, meanwhile, NATS has also been deploying its extended computer display system (ECDS), which recreates the strips used by controllers in an electronic format.

ATC technologies must also evolve to ensure the safe and efficient operation of a new generation of autonomous urban air mobility vehicles, such as Pipistrel’s Nuuva V300, a long-range, large-capacity UAV designed to take off and land vertically with battery power, meaning it doesn’t need a runway.

ATC technologies must also evolve to ensure the safe and efficient operation of a new generation of autonomous urban air mobility vehicles.

The ‘brains’ of the Nuuva V300 is Honeywell’s compact fly-by-wire system for smaller autonomous cargo and urban air mobility vehicles. The size of a paperback book, it enhances performance and stability by driving flight controls electrically, without heavy hydraulics, control cables or push rods.

A potential next-level replacement for RADAR, ADS-B uses GPS satellite signals to send data to the aircraft’s avionic systems. This data is interpreted by analytics software to provide an accurate picture of key aircraft parameters, such as speed and altitude, which is then transmitted to the ATC tower as well as other aircraft in the vicinity to optimise situational awareness for pilots.

In January 2021, US company uAvionix launched its dual-frequency ADS-B receiver pingStation 2, an upgraded version of the solution being trialled at City Airport (Barton) in Manchester in the UK. PingStation works by picking up data from ADS-B-equipped aircraft, converting it to a JavaScript file, and feeding it into an application that plots the aircraft’s position on a customisable Google map.

Honeywell provides the ‘brains’ of Pipistrel’s Nuuva V300, a long-range, large-capacity UAV. Credit: Honeywell/Pipistrel

Next-level ground-handling using robot karts

In the majority of industries, automated and digital solutions have the ability to remove personnel from dangerous environments, where they often perform repetitive tasks with low added value. 

Ground-handling is one area that is ripe for automation, with benefits for airports around aircraft turnaround times and cost, especially when passenger volumes begin to increase later in 2021.

Orok offers a ‘complete baggage transport automation solution’ comprising a fleet of robot vehicles that use AI.

Orok offers a ‘complete baggage transport automation solution’ that comprises a fleet of robot vehicles that use AI to deliver baggage throughout the airport, supervised by a server. These Orokarts are omnidirectional, fitted with an anti-collision system that ensures safety and obstacle avoidance, and run on electricity, which Orok claims reduces power consumption by up to 70%.

Designed to improve the way baggage is loaded and transported by optimising the path between the airport and aircraft, the modular karts can manage bulk baggage as well as containers. The fleet can be scaled up to match infrastructure requirements and reduce operational costs by as much as 50%.

AI informs foreign object debris removal from runways

Foreign object debris/damage (FOD) detection during take-off and landing is a critical element of airport safety. Debris such as tyre parts, asphalt chunks, screws and inset lights also constitutes a significant operational headaches for airports. The collection of debris following a burst tyre, for example, can take more than 30 minutes, during which the runway remains closed to aircraft.

Scanning airport runways continuously without interfering with scheduled take-offs and landings can best be achieved through the automation of FOD detection procedures. Xsight's FODetect solution is designed to continuously monitor runways for the rapid removal of FOD in all weather conditions.

Xsight's FODetect solution is designed to continuously monitor runways.

The solution forms part of RunWize, Xsight’s overarching runway threat detection solution, which combines millimetre-wave radar with electro-optical high-definition imaging for superior detection.

In August 2020, Xsight partnered with Bayanat Engineering Qatar to deploy the RunWize FOD system at Hamad International Airport in Qatar, where it will provide full coverage and ascription capabilities on the airport’s two parallel runways, using complex images and radar processing algorithms based on AI.

Xsight Systems’ Runway Debris Monitoring System sensors deployed along the runway at Hamad International Airport. Credit: PRNewsfoto/Xsight Systems

Delivering value: drones for bird control and logistics

Both airport operators and the general public continue to entertain a love-hate relationship with drones, which offer multiple benefits, while at the same time posing a perceived security threat. 

RoBird, a drone system designed to carry out bird control at airports, belongs firmly in the former category. Designed by Clear Flight Solutions, the remotely-operated, robotic Peregrine Falcon is designed to both scare birds and lure flocks away from the airport space. 

It was integrated into daily operations for the first time on a large scale at Edmonton International Airport (EIA) in Canada. 

Drone delivery is also taking off at EIA. As part of a strategic partnership with Drone Delivery Canada, EIA is set to become a hub for drone cargo deliveries in western and northern Canada in what could be the world’s first regular scheduled drone delivery service from an airport. Watch this space.

RoBird is a remotely operated Peregrine Falcon designed to scare birds and lure flocks away from the airport space. Credit: RoBird