Facial recognition and intelligent vacuum cleaners: Welcome to the automated airport

Robots are taking their first steps to welcoming passengers, handling baggage, driving shuttles and carrying out airfield inspections

December 2018

Words by Katie Puckett

In the future, technology will underpin every aspect of the passenger experience.

Tailored information will be pushed to smartphones, from the best route through the airport to the least crowded seating areas, as well as offers from retailers, restaurants and bars. This will have profound implications for wayfinding — and for the giant banks of signage that dominate airport interiors. Why would we need signs when everything we need to know is on our phone, and we can simply touch any wall for an instant, personalized update?

The airport workforce will be much smaller, and concentrated in customer-facing roles. Robots are already taking their first tentative steps to welcome passengers, answer their questions, escort them to, and clean up after them. Fitted with touchscreens, cameras and rapidly improving algorithms — and speaking multiple languages — they will take your drinks order at Oakland Airport, or dance for you in San Jose. At Geneva, Leo the bag-drop robot will print your tag and take your suitcase at the taxi drop-off. Robots do more than schmoozing. At Incheon, a cleaning robot with cameras, light sensors and bumpers learns which areas need vacuuming most frequently. Shenzhen’s Bao’an security “Anbot” takes pictures of passengers and sends them for analysis, and is fitted with a taser.

“When you go to the airport in 2025, there probably won’t be any people serving you. There will be robots instead”

Frank Lin, WSP

It’s on the airfield that automation is really coming into its own. “The airfield is a dangerous and highly controlled environment,” says Brooks. “Instead of putting people out there to go and get bags, refuel planes or load meals, that will be readily automated pretty quickly.” Airports are also freer to experiment with autonomous vehicles (AVs) because they’re not governed by the same regulations as public highways.

At Charles de Gaulle in Paris, driverless shuttles are ferrying airport employees on an intelligent road network.

London Gatwick is experimenting with electric AVs to move staff between locations on the airfield, allowing transport needs to be met by a much smaller fleet of vehicles.

Rotterdam The Hague in the Netherlands is launching an autonomous baggage handling system that replaces fixed conveyors and sorting systems — each vehicle carries a single piece of baggage and determines the optimal route through the airport.

Norway’s Fagernes Airport has become the first to use self-driving snowploughs, each able to clear 357,500m3 in one hour.

Airport operator Ferrovial has trialled drones to carry out airfield inspections at Southampton Airport in the UK. Unmanned aerial vehicles can cover large areas quicker than humans, capturing images and video in high resolution.

rendering of Terminal 3 at Taoyuan International Airport
The new Terminal 3 at Taoyuan International Airport in Taiwan, designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, will have an “integrated passenger self-service programme”, where passengers will be able to do everything themselves using a smartphone, or with the help of friendly robots, using facial recognition and natural language processing. “You will be able to speak to them, and they will help you to handle baggage or book flights,” says Frank Lin, WSP general manager in Taiwan, who is leading the ICT design.

Roofs over the unknown

Image of Queen Alia Airport


It may be several decades before today’s disruptive innovations become the norm. But when they do, the airports we’re designing now will still be around and they’ll have to accommodate them. Airport buildings typically have a design life of at least 40 years and take a decade to deliver. That’s why the single most important feature of a new airport is flexibility — which means long spans with few columns, so the structure doesn’t interrupt the floor plates and they can be easily reconfigured. Contemporary airports are, more than anything else, capacious roof structures soaring over spaces with as few fixed elements as possible.

“We sit on the cusp of some really fundamental shifts in the way that airports are operated and the way that passengers experience them,” says Andy Thomas, partner at Grimshaw. “As so much of this change is unknown, there’s a limit to how much we can design and plan for it now, so we need strategies that will allow the airport to evolve over the next 30 to 40 years. Those that don’t will slowly decline and ultimately cease to be fit for purpose.”

From The Possible, issue 04

Read the magazine

Clean, green, run by machines

In the ten years since Airports Council International launched the Airport Carbon Accreditation programme, administered by WSP from the outset, 249 airports in 68 countries on every continent have been certified, representing 43.3% of global air traffic. So far, 48 have reached the highest level, which means they have reduced their direct emissions as far as possible and offset any that remain. The goal is for 100 airports to be carbon neutral by 2030.[1]

“There really is no limit to what is possible over the next 100 to 200 years. When we’re talking about aviation, our wildest imaginations need to be taken seriously”

Robert Chicas, HOK

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? The changing shape of aircraft.

The technology that will have the greatest impact on airports is aircraft themselves. “Currently we are facilitating landing, take-off and parking of aircraft that have essentially been the same for the last 70 years: a flying cylinder with wings and a jet engine,” says Jelmer van der Meer at NACO. “But everything that’s happening in the car industry will happen at some point in aeronautics. Aircraft will start using hybrid type engines, maybe even electrical or solar power.”

Aerospace companies are under pressure to innovate: from 2019, aircraft operators will have to report their carbon emissions and, from 2021, pay to offset them. They also face competition from disruptors such as Elon Musk’s Space X and Google’s Planetary Ventures. In 2016, a KPMG survey of aerospace and defence manufacturers found that investment in R&D was set to “skyrocket”, with 45% intending to spend more than 6% of revenues on research.[2]

Jim Heidmann, manager of NASA’s Advanced Air Transport Technology Project, has described this as a “tipping point” for commercial aviation: “We are exploring and developing game-changing technologies and concepts for aircraft and propulsion systems that can dramatically improve efficiency and reduce environmental impact.”

The world’s longest flights are getting longer … [3]

Aircraft will become lighter, more efficient, cleaner and quieter. Manufacturers are exploring new materials and more aerodynamic structures, electric propulsion and energy storage. “We’re already burning a fraction of the jet fuel per passenger kilometre than we used to,” says WSP’s Tim Morrison, “and aircraft manufacturers are spending tens of billions a year on alternative propulsion — not just biofuels and mixing up various fuels to make them leaner and greener, but actually completely changing the technology.”

Technologies developed for the military and space exploration will also find commercial applications, such as “hypersonic” flight at more than five times the speed of sound. Earlier this year, Chinese researchers unveiled a hypersonic jet that could whizz 50 passengers from Beijing to New York in just two hours.

Each new generation of aircraft is on average 20% more fuel-efficient than the one it replaces. Over the next decade, airlines will invest US$1.3tn in new planes


Less radical for passengers but massive for airports will be the retractable wing. Boeing’s 777X is the first passenger plane to feature wing tips that fold in while it’s on the ground, so it has an extra-wide wingspan for more efficient flight but can park up at smaller gates. Airports have already had to adapt to accommodate supersized Airbus A380s, but this could enable them to shrink down again.

Further off and even more radical would be vertical take-off and landing, or VTOL. In 2016, Boeing filed a patent for a VTOL passenger plane for up to 100 passengers; earlier this year, Airbus completed the first full-scale test flights for Vahana, an all-electric self-piloting VTOL aircraft that can carry a single passenger. “If aircraft could take off vertically,” says Morrison, “then all of a sudden, rather than needing a plot of land a few miles across, it could be a fraction of the size. You could start to use building rooftops or transport hubs, such as stations or car parks.”

This article appeared in The Possible issue 04, as part of a longer feature on the future of airports


[1] airportco2.org  [2] Global Aerospace and Defence Industry Outlook 2016, Forbes Insights  [3] BBC and other sources

WSP recently introduced the New Mobility Now Aviation Addendum, which offers a look at the changing world of aviation in light of developments related to the automated, connected, electric and shared aspects of New Mobility. Click here to explore the addendum.

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