Airport managers are expected to assemble a workforce that can handle ever-increasing passenger volume. Terrorism and a global pandemic have made security and sanitation more important (and more difficult), and labor costs make it difficult to fully staff for tasks such as baggage handling, passenger relations and parking. Management is turning to Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR) for help.

The airport robotics market simply didn’t exist a decade ago, but is now poised for growth — and the impact on airport management and the travelers they serve is growing, too.

Increasing Demand

The global market for airport robotics reached $426 million in 2020. The Asia/Pacific region had the largest share of the market ($184.4 million), followed by Europe ($104.5 million), North America ($85.6 million). Middle East/Africa ($30.2 million) and South America ($21.6 million).

Looking forward, each region is expected to see growth in airport robotics. Insight Partners, in their 2021 study Airport Robots Market: Forecast to 2028 – Covid-19 Impact and Global Analysis, projects the following growth by 2028:

  • Asia/Pacific, to $970.8 million, or 23.3% CAGR
  • Europe, to $477.2 million, or 21.2% CAGR
  • North America, to $428.4 million, or 22.6% CAGR
  • Middle East/Africa, to $141.8 million, or 21.6% CAGR
  • South America, to $90 million, or 19.8% CAGR

Robots are used airside, in the areas around the aircraft and in buildings accessible only to ticketed passengers and staff, and landside in passenger and cargo terminals, parking facilities, and access areas such as loading/unloading spaces.

Airside Use of Mobile Robots

Airside applications make up 75% of airport robotics, mostly in the areas of security, luggage handling, sanitation, and passenger guidance.

Airside robotics constituted a global market worth $318.8 million in 2020. Projections call for growth to $1.6 billion by 2028.

Security. Security robots, such as those in use at Qatar’s Hamad International Airport, serve as sophisticated watchmen keeping passengers safe. These scooter-shaped robots move through terminals carrying built-in cameras and sensors that can spot fake credit cards and counterfeit money, identify passengers using facial recognition technology, and use biometrics to tell if a traveler is nervous, or undergoing abnormal stress.

Handling baggage. Every traveler dreads getting to a destination, only to discover that their luggage ended up someplace else. Mobile robots help solve that problem at airports like Dallas Fort Worth International (DFW), where they’ve become an important part of the luggage crew.

The luggage robots at DFW quickly move bags between belts for international connecting flights. These mobile robots handle up to 450 bags per hour, boosting the crew’s capacity and freeing workers for other tasks.

Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam is the 15th largest in the world, and was able to increase its luggage capacity by 40% after adding mobile robots to its baggage handling process. When a passenger checks a bag, it’s taken by a robot and placed in storage until needed. Schiphol’s automated baggage system accesses flight information, so bags remain in storage until time to load for departure. When a plane is ready to load, the robots retrieve bags from storage and deliver them where they’re needed.

Sanitation. Airports have always been subject to rigorous cleaning. With thousands of travelers passing through each day, transmission of cold and flu viruses is a foregone conclusion. The advent of COVID-19 made airport sanitation even more critical.

Cleaning Robots have been scrubbing floors in airports for years. These floor scrubbers operate independently of each other but report their data to a central system, to ensure  thorough cleaning. They navigate around obstacles, and use location and mapping technology to determine their paths. By relying on floor-scrubbing robots, human workers can focus cleaning efforts elsewhere.

Some airports, such as San Antonio International Airport, have invested in mobile robots that use ultraviolet light to disinfect large areas. These robots kill bacteria and viruses, including COVID-19, by emitting UV light as they cruise through high-traffic areas, such as jet bridges, ticketing areas, baggage claim, concessions, and restrooms.

Passenger guidance. The British Airways terminal at London’s Heathrow Airport serves more than 30 million passengers per year. Besides a well-trained staff of human workers, British Airways has begun using mobile robots to provide passenger guidance. These robots speak several languages, and answer questions with real-time information on arrivals and departures, baggage status, etc. Unlike traditional information kiosks, however, these robots navigate through the busy concourse and place themselves where demand is greatest at any given time.

Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport has taken passenger guidance robots a step further. At Schiphol, mobile robots don’t just provide instruction to passengers, but will actually lead travelers to their destination. These guidance robots scan a traveler’s boarding pass and lead them to their gate, avoiding obstacles and adjusting speed to match that of the group.

Landside Use of Mobile Robots

Landside usage, such as parking and transportation, accounts for 25% of airport robot usage.

In 2020, the global market for landside airport robotics was $107.4 million. By 2028, this market is expected to reach $486 million.

Valet parking. Several European airports, such as Paris’ Charles de Gaulle  and London’s Gatwick, have introduced a new form of valet parking. Rather than handing their keys to teenagers hustling for tip money, travelers rely on mobile robots to park their cars.

These parking robots resemble nimble, automated forklifts, carrying vehicles to a parking space in a secure facility. Passengers simply leave their car at the entrance to a parking lot, and the robots handle the rest. The robots are connected to the airports’ flight information system, and retrieve a traveler’s car when their return flight has arrived.

Transportation. Large airports rely on trams and shuttles to carry passengers and workers between buildings or to and from parking lots. Several airports, such as those in Brussels, Belgium and Austin, Texas, use automated, driverless shuttles to handle this repetitive task. These driverless vehicles are Autonomous Mobile Robots in every sense of the word, using Simultaneous Localization and Mapping technology and onboard sensors to carry passengers safely from place to place.

Key Drivers of Growth

The key factors driving growth in the global airport robotics market are labor shortages and increasing labor costs, growth in airport traffic, expansion of existing airports, and new airport construction.

Autonomous Mobile Robots excel in performing repetitive tasks such as carrying baggage, cleaning terminals, and parking cars. These tasks have historically been performed by human workers. Mobile robots allow airports to manage unskilled labor costs and assign human workers to more complicated tasks.

Before the COVID pandemic in 2020, global air travel had experienced a two-decade period of sustained growth. In 2000, there were about 1.6 billion ticketed passengers worldwide; in 2019 that number exceeded 4.3 billion. The years 2020 and 2021 represent a slight downturn in air travel which is expected to rebound to previous trends. As the number of passengers grows, the need for passenger and baggage services, security, and sanitation will grow as well.

Airport expansion is an ongoing trend around the world. This is driven both by the volume of air travel and by contemporary security and sanitation concerns. As airport management groups plan reconfiguration of existing terminals and expansion of others, they’re taking a more active interest in robots.

New facilities built to state-of-the-art standards provide a wide range of use cases for mobile robots. Several countries, notably China and India, have committed to building new, modern airports over the next few decades. The Chinese government has plans for 215 new airports by 2035, while India has promised 100 by 2024.

Summary

The airport robotics market should maintain a healthy rate of growth through 2028. This is driven both by simple supply and demand, with the increase in air travel bringing growth in ancillary services, and by contemporary concerns such as security and sanitation.