If you find yourself in an airport being followed by a check-in kiosk at some stage you’ve likely encountered KATE, a robotic kiosk that can take itself to busy areas as needed to relieve pressure.

It’s one of the ideas technology companies are putting forward as the number of travellers doubles over the next two decades.

The International Air Transport Association is predicting passenger numbers will rise 6 per cent in the next year alone to hit 4.3 billion.

The rise in passenger numbers has prompted IATA and the Airports Council International to join forces to look at ways they can move check-in and security processes away from airport sites, as well as better use advanced tracking and robots.

The move is part of an initiative called New Experience in Travel and Technologies (NEXTT) and comes as the industry prepares for the significant growth ahead.

IATA is predicting the number of passengers will soar to 7.8 billion by 2036, based on a 3.6 per cent compound annual growth rate.

The Asia-Pacific region will be the biggest driver of demand and the source of more than half the new passengers over the next two decades.

China is expected to displace the US as the world’s biggest aviation market in 2022 through a combination of slightly faster Chinese growth and slightly reduced growth in the US.

The UK will fall to fifth place, surpassed by India in 2025, and Indonesia in 2030. Thailand and Turkey will enter the top ten largest markets, while France and Italy will fall in the rankings to 11th and 12th respectively.

The airline and airport organisations hope NEXTT will develop ways of improving the on-ground transport experience, guide industry investments and help governments improve the regulatory framework.

It will look at better use of space, enhanced deployments of artificial intelligence and robotics as well as vastly improving data sharing between stakeholders.

Enter technologies such as KATE.

Technology company SITA is looking at both biometrics and robotics to help airlines smooth the way.

KATE is a product of SITA Lab and accesses data sources such as flight and passenger flow information through Wi-Fi to identify where additional check-in kiosks are needed to reduce passenger queue times.

It then uses geo-location technology to head off and lend a hand. Obstacle avoidance technology allows it to move freely around a terminal without bumping into people or other objects

Multiple kiosks can be deployed either automatically or manually and they can communicate with each other through the cloud to make sure they head to the right place at the right time.

“They will just go to the passengers and the passengers can then just check in and don’t need to wait in the queue in a congested area,’’ SITA president Asia-Pacific Sumesh Patel said at the sidelines of this year’s Australian Airports Association conference in Adelaide.

Mr Patel said the kiosks would be stationed at a command centre and could be programmed to automatically deploy when congestion reached a certain level.

“Or someone sitting at the command centre could say go to this area and the kiosk will go there and help passengers.’’

SITA has also trialled a robotic bag drop unit at Geneva.

“What it does is that when the passenger gets into terminal, the robot will approach and the passengers don’t even need to go the counter,’’ Mr Patel said.

“They can just drop their bag, get their bar code and that’s it. The robot takes care of everything.’’

When it comes to security, however, Mr Patel sees biometrics such as the facial recognition system being tested at Brisbane Airport as the key technology.

He said the desire of passengers for fast, easy and secure access when they arrive at an airport needed to matched with the need for increasing airport security.

“Biometrics is something which is proven and works pretty well to the extent that even if there are twins, it can actually identify them,” he said.

The next step for SITA, according to Mr Patel, is to integrate with border security systems so its biometrics system used the same database.

“If someone is blacklisted, it will flag it,’’ he said.

“The person will never even get a boarding pass and they’ll be asked to go and visit the counter.

“They will be asked questions, but 99 per cent of the people can enjoy seamless travel.’’

The SITA executive also raised the possibility of biotech systems using the emerging Blockchain cryptography system “seven to 10 years down the line”.  SITA is already working with certain airlines and airports on the system but Mr Patel said it was in an initial phase.

While security at airports was an issue, he said passengers also had concerns about their biometric data.

This included passengers not wanting to share the data as well as worries about how the long it would be kept and how it would be stored.

“One of the things we’re currently looking at is in terms of blockchain,’’ he said.

“So if you’re a passenger, irrespective of which airline you fly or which airport you visit, you want the same kind of seamless experience across the globe.

“So the next technology could be where blockchain could be used as trusted repository where a passenger goes and data is shared between the airports.’’

Another advance is in artificial intelligence.

SITA is currently working with Finland’s Helsinki Airport on a project that uses Microsoft HoloLens to take data from inputs such as airlines, operations and flight status to create a “mixed reality” environment using the holographic technology.

“This could then be used to create a 3-D ecosystem that looked at airport traffic and resources and managed the information through mixed reality,” Mr Patel said.

“So you could have 10 airports under your belt as a single airport authority and you can integrate that sitting at some command centre outside the airport and manage all the resources and everything,’’ he said.

Steve Creedy

Author

An award-winning journalist, Steve began covering aviation in the United States in the early nineties before returning to Australia later that decade and editing The Australian’s aviation section for 17 years. He is editor of Airline Ratings and has co-authored books on industry initiatives aimed at reducing greenhouse emissions.

Steve has joined the AAA to write interesting and informative editorial on the aviation industry.