AVs and where they can take us – and our bags

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Autonomous vehicles (also known as AVs) are a relatively new arrival on the airports scene, but what are the most important lessons the industry needs to learn about their use? And how will airports change if AVs are fully mobilised?


Gijs Bartelet

System Concepting Director

We’re all aware of how fast technology moves, especially in this business. In the beginning, earlier forms of AVs were ‘guided’ by wires or magnets in the floor and performed special tasks. These included transporting heavy items at low speeds through a warehouse.

We have since seen considerable development in AV technology (especially in sensors, batteries, wireless communication and navigation methods). This is the reason why we are now using them for high-performance tasks such as the sortation of baggage at airports.

The power of autonomy

The process between the baggage hall and the aircraft is still mostly manual, and we see a great deal of value in automating this part of the bag journey. The real advantage of AVs is that they can be tailored to actual baggage demands, so airports can be efficient in deploying the right capacity.

We also see value in combining technologies. For example, point-to-point flows could still be handled on conveyors, but AVs could be used for all the exceptional flows around them, such as sortation, buffering or providing specific redundancy levels.

Outside the airport, the scope for AVs is broad. This is not least because of all the similarities and current momentum with self-driving vehicles on public roads.

However, an airport is a more controlled environment. We see many opportunities to provide baggage transport between the terminal and the aircraft, vice-versa, between terminals, or even from one aircraft to the other.

Scalable and flexible

There are many advantages of an airport going ahead with AV solutions, especially when you think about becoming future-proof and more resilient. Scalability is important when future demand is uncertain. And considering the effects of the current global pandemic, the ability to scale up – or down – quickly when needed is paramount.

As well as scalability, the opportunities to balance labour resources with an increased level of automation leaves airports less dependent on the human factor. This flexibility is another benefit of AVs – not just in terms of demand, but also in the use of space, because there’s no fixed infrastructure in place for baggage.

Quick deployment is another significant benefit because system commissioning can be done offsite, as well as remote software updates, which is a big advantage for the future. AVs can be tested away from site and then put to work almost immediately. This also allows them to be deployed temporarily, for example during big events or to support major system overhauls.

Even on the apron, there’s no reason why ground support equipment couldn’t be automated, such as catering trucks and passenger stairs. As larger airports with multiple baggage halls have peaks at different times, AVs would allow you to move some capacity from one area to another. This wouldn’t be possible with fixed infrastructure.

Regardless of the zone or task, we have developed a family of AV solutions (which we call FLEET) capable of handling single pieces of luggage, containers (ULDs or carts) and groups of containers on dollies.

The next level

In terms of taking things to the next level, we’ll see a step-by-step approach, with AVs initially used in situations that are less business critical, such as handling empty ULDs at the apron. Then we’ll see a move towards larger applications.

What’s important is the ‘end-to-end’ process. This certainly gives value to users, as we can optimise the total flow of bags through an airport, from the passenger to the aircraft, by sending bags in the right sequence or by prioritising ‘hot’ bags over ‘normal’ bags.

With automation, the predictability of the whole process increases and that will give a better performance in terms of mishandled bags, connection times, turnaround times, safety, decision-making for the airport and – importantly – better information for passengers.

End-to-end thinking

Airports and airlines are ready for this transition, so we’re testing new technology with some of them. We’re trialling different innovations at a range of locations, then sharing the findings in parallel – that’s the best way to speed up development.

Our plan isn’t about single AVs, it’s about the total system, the entire end-to-end process. And through that model, we’ll develop integrated solutions that deliver the right bags to the right locations at the right time.


Check-in Podcast

I have discussed this topic in Vanderlande’s Check-in podcast as well. Listen to the episode here:

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