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Michigan Airport to Experiment With More Autonomous Tech

Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Mich., is partnering with a number of companies to deploy autonomous technology in its operations. The controlled nature of the environment makes it ideal to test this tech.

Shutterstock/Jaromir Chalabala
Michigan's Gerald R. Ford International Airport could soon be on the leading edge of tomorrow’s airport innovations. The facility and its private-sector partners are now exploring autonomous technologies for everything from the movement of flight-line vehicles to security.

The Grand Rapids airport launched its FLITE — the Ford Launchpad for Innovative Technologies and Entrepreneurship — program to encourage the development of next-gen technologies, and will be partnering with three tech companies and an airline to develop new systems.

“We’re all about making sure that we can help people, and companies, and researchers realize a fully electrified, autonomous, connected and shared mobility future. And that happens on the ground, but it also happens in the air,” Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist told Government Technology in a recent interview.

Aurrigo, a United Kingdom-based technology company, will deploy its Auto-Sim software platform, which creates a “digital twin” of the airport to make the management of autonomous vehicles on the flight line possible.

WHILL, another tech partner, is an autonomous mobility company and maker of small, personal autonomous power chairs, while Sunflower Labs produces autonomous drones.

The future of airports is autonomous, namely because an airport is such a closed and controlled environment; it is the ideal use case for automated operations, said Chris Keefe, vice president for autonomous programs at Aurrigo.

“Everything is orchestrated,” Keefe said of airport operations. “They know when things are moving, where they’re going. So, from that standpoint, it makes it a lot easier to, in a sense, deploy autonomous vehicles because the security is already there.”

Other partners in the FLITE project include the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and Southwest Airlines. The state provided $150,000 in grants to the three participating companies.

The project “is a great opportunity for, again, people with ideas, and researchers, and companies, that are ready to test what next-generation deployments of connected and autonomous flight means, and all the kinds of services that can enable,” said Gilchrist.

“This is really a proving ground, if you will, for this kind of technology,” he added.

Gerald R. Ford International Airport is no stranger to autonomous technology. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic the airport launched a Large-area-autonomous-Disinfecting robotic vehicle (LaaD) that roams the terminal spraying disinfectant around the boarding gate areas.

Other airports have also been experimenting with autonomous technology. Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) is using AV technology from ThorDrive on the airport’s luggage-transporting vehicles — known as ground tugs. And passengers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport can have food delivered by a robot named “Gita. ”

What Aurrigo brings to autonomous airport operations, said Keefe, is its Auto-Sim software platform, which allows the creation of the “digital twin.” The software is gathering real-time data from the Grand Rapids airport.

“All these things will be fed to our team that takes all this information and creates a 3D world,” Keefe explained. “It’s a very advanced piece of software."

“The software is kind of the conductor, and the orchestra is the airport,” he added.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.