Airport operators and autonomy: a primer

Autonomous vehicles--whether on the ground or in the air--are poised to change the world. Whether it's a flying ride-hailing service or delivering a package using a drone, the ability to integrate this emerging technology into everyday operations will have a profound effect on how businesses function, and how entire organizations are built. Airports are no exception.

But while many are focused on the future--will Uber really morph into a flying taxi service, for instance?--there is plenty happening today that can benefit the airport environment. Here's a brief primer on how airport leaders can integrate autonomy into their operations today.

Review Your Team

Implementing autonomous technologies won't just change the way your airport operates--it will change the way your team thinks. And that may mean changing your team some to meet the challenge.

Leveraging new technology requires two key types of people: innovators and implementers. You'll need equally effective representatives in both camps, and here's why: innovators will help apply what's possible to the problems and opportunities out there today. But innovation can drag on, if you're not careful. That's where the implementers come in. Rolling out an imperfect but nevertheless effective solution is better than endless designing, testing, and refining. 

Factoring in these two key work personae into your hiring practices will help you build a future-proof team. But you don't necessarily have to change your people to change your organization's mentality. Take a look at your current team members, pick out the innovators and implementers, and tweak their responsibilities, as needed. (Not sure how to identify your team's strengths and weaknesses? We can help with that.)

Start With Low-Risk Opportunities

Most airports would welcome, say, a fully automated cart that goes between the ramp and the baggage-handling system without needing a driver or a marshal. While that's possible down the road, it's not here now, and it may not be for some time. Limiting your focus to what's coming, as opposed to what's possible today, is a common mistake we see as airports ponder how they can use autonomy.

When pondering how you can use autonomy now, think of low-risk, everyday activities, such as inspecting facilities or mowing grass, that can be done today using autonomous or semi-autonomous technology. Tasks such as landscaping that could be done during off-hours (especially overnight) reduce the risk even more. Inspecting buildings or other facilities--both inside and out--can be done with line-of-sight drones and the proper regulatory approvals.

While minimizing autonomy's exposure to airport operations is a solid starting strategy, eventually the technology must be integrated with the day-to-day bustle of airside and landside operations. Here, too, risk can be minimized: witness the London Gatwick Airport trial using autonomous vehicles to shuttle airport staff around the facility. Limiting the project to staff creates a subset of users that can be educated on the trial's purpose and how it works, while the lessons learned can be applied to a wider range of applications, such as moving passengers from hard-stands to the terminal.

The start-slow approach may not move the bottom line much, but it will set you up for future success. You will have a better understanding of your staff's ability to embrace and apply autonomy. Getting a few projects in place also demonstrates to key stakeholders--airport boards, city officials, airline representatives, etc.--that your team is capable of reaping benefits from emerging technology.

Understand The Sharing Economy

One of the biggest changes that autonomy will bring is more efficiency among fleets. Vehicles typically spend up to 95% of their service lives idle. Research from PriceWaterhouseCoopers shows that automating a fleet can cut the number of vehicles needed by as much at 75%. In the airport environment, this could translate into fewer baggage tractors or aircraft tugs. If airports take the initiative and become fleet operators, they can offer a needed, cost-effective service to tenants while reaping the benefits of added revenue.

This will influence how facilities are built, too. Parking garages of the future will not need as many spaces as they have today, thanks largely to ride-sharing. 

While there's still much to shake out there, it's worth noting that the sharing economy combined with automation should lead to fewer vehicles in both your passenger-parking and operations/service vehicle lots.

Own Your Data

One area quickly gaining traction in the autonomous and drone spaces is site surveys and inspections. Power companies are using drones in their networks, for instance, and airlines are beginning to implement them for aircraft inspections within hangars.

Inspecting building interiors is one example of a near-term application that airports could use. Perhaps it's a completed structure, like a parking garage, or an under-construction project. Regardless, the ability to capture data, catalog assets and attributes, and track changes figures to be a big money-maker in the automated/drone world.

While airport operators don't have to get into the business themselves (though they could--yet another service that could benefit tenants), they should be vigilant about ensuring that anybody collecting data on their properties makes that data available to them. Your data is like gold--and you should not let anyone collect or sift through it without getting a piece of the action.

Catalyst-Go solutions have helped Cat X and Cat 1 airports understand and prioritize their core values and objectives in integrating autonomy into their business plans. We help airports understand the basics of autonomous vehicles and work with them to clarify the management structure they need to have in place to successfully deploy these systems.