Scope#37 | AiRO & Swissport JapanSavior of the Labor Shortage - Smart Airport, Challenge for Autonomous Ariving

An aircraft takes off at its scheduled departure time without sacrificing safety, which must always come first. There are a great number of dedicated professionals both inside and outside of the terminal, doing their best to make sure that the plane leaves safely and on time. The job of a baggage handler is to ensure that all check-in baggage is sorted properly and then loaded carefully into the aircraft. The cargo crew does the same for cargo. A passenger-service agent at the gate makes a final boarding call. A ramp agent operates a towing tractor which pushes the aircraft back from the gate and then takes it to the runway.

These jobs all fall under the umbrella of the “aircraft ground handling” industry and are managed by specialized companies that are entrusted by the airlines to carry them out. Swissport Japan (SPJ), which became a joint-venture company when Marubeni acquired a 49 percent stake in 2007, is one of Japan’s ground handling companies. While most ground handlers in the world, including in Japan, belong to an airline as its subsidiary, Swissport International, the Switzerland-based parents company of SPJ, is an independent corporation. The company operates at 310 airports in about 50 countries, providing services to the airlines to help them ensure that their passengers have a safe and pleasant flight. To date, Swissport has been recognized multiple times for its outstanding services.

Backed by growing travel demand, more airlines, both full-service carriers and low-cost carriers, have recently added flights or opened routes to and from Japan. In line with this trend, SPJ has also continued to grow – its revenue exceeding 10 billion yen in 2018. As of March 2020, the company operates at six international airports (Narita, Haneda, Chubu Centrair, Kansai, Fukuoka, Naha), providing ground-handling services to international airlines.

The SPJ crew, who work at check-in counters or gates, thoroughly understand both the practical and technical aspects of these jobs, as well as the customer service standards that are defined by each airline to which they are specifically assigned. They also wear the airline’s uniform so that passengers will know that they are associated with that airline.

“Our job is very important because it becomes part of the impression that our customers (the passengers) will form on their journeys,” says Chiaki Theriault, Station Manager at Chubu Centrair International Airport in Nagoya, one of Japan’s major cities.
Since she joined the company, Theriault, who previously worked for a Japanese ground handling company, has been involved in SPJ’s opening at all six of the airports where it now operates. “Especially for those who are to take an outbound flight to go to their travel destinations, their experiences with us may end up being inscribed on one page in the diary of their lives,” she says. “If they like our services, their time in the destinations will be a pleasant one because of that.”

The World’s First: An Autonomous Bus Crosses a Taxiway

While more companies seek to add or open routes to and from Japan, the ground handling industry is, like many others operating in Japan, facing a severe worker shortage due to the aging general population and declining working-age population; supply falls short of demand. In fact, some airlines have even had to suspend their plans to open new routes, despite having successfully secured slots at major international airports, as they have been unable to find an available ground handling company in Japan. Ground handling operations are crucial for the future of travel, and must be streamlined as soon as possible.

Autonomous vehicles may be the ultimate game changer; all stakeholders in the aviation industry, including governments, are anxiously awaiting the commercialization of this new technology. In 2018, Marubeni created a joint-venture company, AiRO, together with ZMP, a Tokyo-based startup, in an effort to commercialize autonomous driving technology in the airport ground handling industry. ZMP boasts outstanding R&D capabilities which they have used to advance autonomous driving technology and conduct regular and robust testing on public roads. Using the RoboCar® Mini EV Bus, developed by ZMP, AiRO has completed proof of-concept tests at airports. AiRO’s goal is to apply this technology to the airside transfer buses that shuttle travelers from one place to another at airports, and these proof-of-concept tests are meant to validate the self-driving system that will allow these buses to run their routes autonomously.

The third test drive of the RoboCar®, which was defined as “the final phase of the proof-of-concept, and the last step towards commercialization,” took place in December 2019 at Chubu Centrair International Airport. The bus successfully drove itself and actual passengers from the international terminal’s bus-waiting lounge to the apron, an aircraft parking area away from the terminal. While there was a driver sitting in the driver’s seat for safety purposes, at no point was he involved in steering the vehicle. This marked the first time in the world that an autonomous bus crossed a taxiway.

The self-driving system is based on cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence and image recognition. There are three tasks that autonomous vehicles are constantly performing: “recognition”, “judgment” and “operation.” For an autonomous vehicle to locate its own position, as well as recognize its surroundings such as other cars and pedestrians, it must be equipped with multiple cameras and LiDARs – remote sensors that emit light to measure the distance to surrounding objects. When it comes to self-driving on restricted areas of airports however, it is not enough for a vehicle to be able to precisely detect and identify an aircraft that is moving hundreds of meters away; there are blind spots. In the unprecedented third test drive, the RoboCar® drove autonomously in close proximity to aircrafts. To achieve this, AiRO used a wide-area camera so that the RoboCar® would be able to locate nearby planes by viewing the entirety of the restricted areas through which it was navigating. Once the camera is able to see the whole area, it then transmits commands to the bus, such as “Proceed,” or “Wait.” Based on the command as well as data collected by the censors installed on the bus, the autonomous driving system is able to make precise, autonomous decisions and then act on them. All of these tasks are performed automatically.

Another key point of this test drive was that the remote-control system was also tested. This was intended to simulate the operation of running fully autonomous buses—a proactive and forward looking move in anticipation of the future when these buses will become available for commercial use. During the test drive, operators were assigned to a temporary remote operation center in order to monitor activities both inside and outside of the bus. They were also tasked with remotely controlling some part of the operation, such as starting the bus and opening and closing the doors. Normally, several airside transfer buses operate independently within each terminal of an airport during the hours with a high concentration of incoming and outgoing flights. With the help of this new technology, a dispatcher will be able to remotely monitor and send commands to multiple driverless buses.

Toru Okazaki, Chief Executive Officer of AiRO (as of January 2020), says he felt a strong sense of confidence in the outcome of the test drive. “You have to pay utmost attention to safety when having a vehicle drive on a taxiway where aircrafts are operating. The fact that we were able to confirm the ability of our system to do this without any problems will certainly give a sense of assurance to the public as well,” Okazaki says. AiRO’s ultimate goal is to put complete automation—“Level 5,” in which even steering wheels may not be required—into a variety of vehicles that operate within restricted areas of airports. Okazaki underscores that public acceptance of autonomous vehicles, in conjunction with technological innovations, will be key to success. “It will take a little more time until we have self-driving cars on public roads where unexpected things happen, which makes it difficult to overcome technological hurdles,” Okazaki says. “But the restricted areas of airports are a favorable environment for current autonomous driving technology to be applied.”

Success in Airports Will Expedite Deployment on Public Roads

The arrival of driverless cars on public roads is still a long way off due to complicated factors like the movements of pedestrians and other cars that are difficult to calculate for; someone may run out into the street or some driver may make a sudden, unexpected turn. Artificial Intelligence still has a ways to go before it can prove that it never fails to make sound judgement in such hazardous circumstances. And there is one other thing: legislation. Without laws that would pave the way for the commercial development of autonomous vehicles, complete automation will never be realized. On the other hand, restricted areas of airports are exempt from the Road Traffic Act. These areas are off-limits to unauthorized personnel. The operators of the specialized vehicles that do have permission to run in these areas are all professionals with advanced driving skills as well as an understanding of airport specific rules and regulations.
“Working towards the commercialization of the technology for use within the restricted areas of places like airports and factories will help expedite our efforts to deploy autonomous vehicles on public roads,” says Kentaro Ryu, general manager of ZMP’s Robolution Division. At its inception, ZMP was working on the development of walking bipedal robots, but after turning a keen eye towards the potential future of autonomous driving as a mature technology, ZMP ventured into this new realm and began developing its own autonomous driving technology in 2007.

In order for an autonomous vehicle to be able to “recognize”, “judge” and “operate” effectively, every piece of hardware and software must be congruently interconnected. ZMP’s competitive edge is in its ability to develop and seamlessly integrate both hardware and software. “Self-driving technology can provide alternatives to how people and things move from one place to another, and this will help solve worker shortages,” Ryu says. “That is exactly what our mission calls for.”

Leveraging the self-driving technology developed for automobiles, ZMP also makes automated guided vehicles (AGV), basically autonomous mobile robots. ZMP currently develops two types of these robots: there is the “CarriRo” that is designed to support logistics operations, and the “RakuRo”, a single-seater, personal mobility robot. AiRO believes that AGVs, too, will one day help optimize airport ground handling operations. One example of a potential use for the RakuRo is as an automated wheel chair. Using a multi-lingual tablet computer attached to the robot, users can specify where they want to go, and the RakuRo will take them to their desired destination. Currently, human agents provide assistance to those who require a wheelchair to get around the airport; these passenger-service personnel help wheelchair users with pushing the chair and navigating around the terminal. Wheelchair service is in high demand, and requests from disembarking passengers who require them often come on very short notice. The crew must figure out ways to allocate their limited resources to accommodate these needs, which poses a big challenge.

AiRO’s Blueprint for a More Connected Future

“Increased automation will help our staff enormously,” Theriault of SPJ says. She adds that autonomous driving is especially sought after in cargo handling and baggage handling operations. If towing tractors can drive themselves, transporting containers filled with cargo or baggage to the aircraft, that will lift a great burden from the shoulders of ground handlers. If autonomous driving is achieved commercially, airside transfer buses can be run more efficiently as well. At present, SPJ struggles to employee a sufficient number of bus drivers, and also invests a lot of time, effort and resources into what new drivers they are able to hire, training them on how the airport works and where to be extra cautious. With the help of AGVs that can support operators whose jobs require lots of lifting and carrying heavy bags, these jobs will open up to people who may not be as physically strong as the people who currently fill these roles. Theriault also points out that bringing in the latest technologies can appeal to younger people, and as such may help overcome recruiting challenges that the company faces today. “We hope that SPJ will continue to grow as a leading company that uses the most advanced technologies,” she says.

Following a series of successful test drives of the autonomous airside transfer bus, AiRO plans to carry out two proof-of-concept tests for an autonomous cargo-towing tractor during the summer and fall of 2020. These two tests will take place at Narita International Airport and Kansai International Airport, respectively. SPJ is planning for, and contributing to, a future in which all kinds of vehicles—from aircraft tow and pushback tractors to snow melting and clearing vehicles that are indispensable for regions with heavy snowfall—will be driving themselves. AiRO also aims to bring their autonomous driving services into the global market, leveraging Swissport’s worldwide network.

Okazaki explains that, once commercialized, autonomous driving will make a tremendous difference on many fronts of the airport ground handling business. One benefit is that the resources saved by the implementation of autonomous vehicles can be reallocated to other operations, such as passenger services, a redeployment that will help enhance the customer experience. By streamlining operations to improve their efficiency, ground handling companies will have extra capacity, which will enable them to work with more airlines. The more the airlines open routes to and from Japan, the more flight options people will have to choose from. Okazaki says that AiRO has an even more ambitious goal, envisioning the future to be a place where the industry is shaped by innovative technologies. “If we can introduce our autonomous driving technology into all types of vehicles and have them centrally controlled as well, we can provide integrated fleet management, which will enable ground handling companies to offer fully automated services without any human intervention,” Okazaki says. “Many parts of the world have been grappling with worker shortages. Our hope is that we will be able to help them overcome their challenges.”

All information contained in this article is based on interviews conducted in December 2019 to January 2020.