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Are Airports the Ideal Testbed for the Newest Technologies?

Airports are increasingly turning to cutting-edge technologies to meet their daily operational needs. These initiatives serve as real-world tests and economic drivers in the communities the airports serve.

An abstract image of airport travelers walking through a terminal.
Airports are increasingly turning to emerging technologies to improve the airport experience for customers and employees alike — and automation is taking center stage.

In recent years, some have come to consider airports as testing grounds for new technologies, from tech to combat the COVID-19 pandemic to facial recognition. While some regulatory questions still remain, the use of emerging technologies in the public sector is likely to continue.

At Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG), the airport’s innovation team sees the implementation of new technologies as a process that evolves based on societal changes and economic needs, explained Naashom Marx, CVG’s director of strategic innovation.

From autonomous luggage-transporting vehicles to food delivery robots, Marx said Avidbots — autonomous robotic cleaning equipment — has been the most impactful. In addition to keeping the airport clean, the deployment has created an opportunity for airport staff at all levels to better understand automation, which also helps to simplify future implementations of autonomous technology.

The airport has also adopted IoT sensors, which have helped create what Marx describes as “the heartbeat” of the airport. Meanwhile EASE, a data integration platform, offers a comprehensive view of the operational information. These tools, Marx explained, will be increasingly important as older aviation professionals retire and the airport works to strengthen the workforce.

“This is not just playing with toys,” Marx said. “It’s a recruitment tool. It’s a retention tool — not only for CVG, but also the region.”

Jessica Yip, COO and co-founder of A&K Robotics, said that thinking about the workforce needs of the future has helped shape the implementation of the company’s products. A&K is an autonomous micromobility company recently put to the test by the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) in collaboration with Southwest Airlines. As part of the project, self-driving robot pods transport people with limited mobility so that they can more easily navigate the long distances often found in large airports.

Yip said that both ATL and Southwest Airlines have been evaluating how to solve the challenge of the growing demand for mobility assistance. Many factors contribute to this challenge — including an aging population and an increase in travelers following travel restrictions implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yip explained that one of the driving factors is that most mobility assistance services today rely on manual labor for execution. For this reason, the turn to autonomous micromobility products is closely tied with the labor shortage. As such, the A&K pods have been designed with the user experience in mind, to be intuitive both for passengers and for staff that will be integrating them into their workflows.

Airports influence adoption of technologies in the communities in which they operate, serving as a major regional economic driver, she said.

“How I see this is that airports are ultimately like smart cities,” she said. “I see a lot of potential with airports as a microcosm for smart cities that we will live in in the future. … And so, mobility, accessibility and transportation are going to be key in terms of the sustainable communities that we live in in the future.”

The technologies that airports use sometimes expand outside of the airport itself. For example, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) now offers passengers a chance to use a Waymo autonomous vehicle service as a Trusted Tester participant between the airport and downtown Phoenix. Currently, these rides are being offered with an autonomous specialist in the vehicle.

Aman Nalavade, product manager for Waymo, said this is something that Phoenix residents or visitors can participate in voluntarily through the mobile app. This allows the company to ensure accessibility and safety in the coming months, and ultimately will lead to greater confidence when the rides no longer have a specialist in the vehicle. The company will be working to iron out any obstacles, both through user feedback and a collaborative relationship with PHX.

“Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is always looking to employ new technology that improves or enhances our customers’ experience,” Gregory E. Roybal, public information officer for Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, said in an email. He pointed to initiatives like the launch of mobile ID through Apple Wallet at security checkpoints earlier this year and electrochromic glazing on windows that use AI to automatically adjust tint.

The emergence of autonomous technologies to improve the customer experience while addressing growing workforce challenges is creating unique technology experiences for passengers. The Dallas-Fort Worth Airport (DFW) is complementing its existing staff with Iris. First introduced in June 2021, Iris is an artificial intelligence-powered “digital concierge” that can answer questions through voice-based technology.

“We were inspired by the potential of voice responsive, autonomously animated and artificially intelligent technology that could deliver up-to-date information to our passengers in real time and do it in a way that was empathetic to customers,” Jodie Brinkerhoff, vice president of innovation for DFW, told Government Technology in an email. “At scale, Iris also builds business resiliency across the airport enterprise.”

As the workforce continues to change and evolve, airports’ widespread adoption of automation-related technologies may indicate to other state and local government agencies the trends to come.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.