The Rise of the Machines


Automation is the buzzword in aviation as businesses look to rebuild after the pandemic. Robots may eventually outperform us in all aspects of running a successful station. So let’s embrace the age of AI algorithms rather than resist it says GHI’S Max Gosney

Automation. The topic came up too many times to remember at our recent GHI Webinar on the Americas market vs Covid-19.

Which is a mistake an AI infused robo-GHI chairman would never make. The Gosbot 5000 series purring with 16GB of RAM would never forget a simple stat like that, stutter during a conference welcome speech or leave its shirt untucked while standing on stage.

You see automation will outperform a human whether it’s running a GHI Conference or a ground handling station. You – much like me – are probably banging the desk at the thought. ‘No Max. Robots can cut the lawn, turn on the tumble dryer and even drive a car: but there are some jobs that automatons can never hope to match us in’. 

Those sacrosanct ‘homo sapiens only’ roles tend to be positions regarding creativity, strategic nouse and adaptability to a constantly changing environment. Jobs like overseeing the ground handling demands for an airline across a global route network. That demands a level of warmth, understanding and ingenuity that no inert computer programme could replicate.

Are you sure? Researchers Frey and Osborne delivered a white paper on the future of automation in 2013 that estimated 47% of US jobs would be lost to computer algorithms by 2033. We have already witnessed a computer beat a flesh and blood human at that ultimate game of strategy, chess in 1996. Nearly 25 years later and the computers have grown exponentially smarter through AI. For example, algorithms used by Facebook mean a computer can predict your behaviour better than a close friend after you make just 70 likes. After 300 likes, the robot knows you better than your spouse (though for marital harmony let’s keep that one between ourselves).

Apply that mastery of algorithms into our world of aviation and the performance improvements are irrefutable. Machines could provide an exceptional and highly personalised journey experience to please even the most cantankerous passenger. ‘Welcome to check in sir’ says our fictional smartbot. ‘We’ve placed you on the aisle seat by the wing, here’s a free download of The Economist and the attendant will be bringing you that second bottle of Zinfandel that we know gets you off to sleep after the meal service’. The jaw of our human passenger may need to be scraped off the concourse at this point. But the insight attained by the automated agent is simple science.

You see smart bot is operated by a pioneering airline/handler/airport alliance who have invested in attaining passenger data during travel. Our alliance analyses metrics taken from this fastidious passengers in ten previous flights via a smart watch (those who cry privacy might want to consider how much data they freely share on social media or fitness apps).

The app tracking heart rate, neuroactivity and stress levels gives precious insight into pleasure and pain points during the journey. Hence, we know the traveller always sees a drop in stress levels when they were allocated an aisle seats on previous bookings, particularly on a row positioned by the wings (a nervous flyer perhaps).

The biometrics also revealed a spike in anxiety when the meal service finished which only dissipated when the flight attendant button was activated and the catering log showed a second miniature being dispatched.  Analysis of the passenger’s social media shares showed a penchant for current affairs articles and hence the magazine recommendation.

The smart bot could also be armed with facial recognition software allowing it to adapt its volume and intonation to meet the passengers preferred accent and cadence of conversation.

Let’s now move from departures out on to the apron where the rise of the robots will be no less accomplished. Here just one human waits on the stand. But this is no ordinary team leader as the arrival of his operatives and pushback driver is determined by remote control through a hand-held smart device. The arriving aircraft docks at the gate using an automated guidance system and our tech savvy team leader presses the ‘chocks on’ icon on the screen.

An automated dolly springs into action by manoeuvring itself on multidirectional wheels towards the aircraft’s tyres. Once in place – as instructed by guiding sensors – the vehicle stretches its mechanical arms containing wheel grips that lock the aircraft to terra firma. There are no traditional chocks, no 101 different coning arrangements and no sweat and tears.

From there, it’s a binary-led ballet: passenger boarding bridge and GPU connect to the aircraft by sensors. Electrical cargo robots remove ULDs autonomously as per the refueling and wastewater removal. Even our iPad wielding team leader may not be without technological enhancement. The US military has trialled an attention helmet for its troops that uses electrical stimulus to heighten a soldier’s cognitive performance under extreme pressure. The perfect accessory for a team leader fielding a late arriving inbound flight operated by an LCC who will not tolerate anything less than a 25minute turnaround.

The scenario above is not a flight of fancy. It’s a description of a one-man turnaround animated video shown by Diego Alonso Tabares, Senior Engineer- Airport Operations at Airbus at GHI’s 7th Ground Damage Stakeholders’ Conference in Rome in May 2018 (apart from the attention helmet). The technology can be retro fitted to existing airports infrastructure or incorporated into new. 

Now – like me – something in your soul might rankle at all these robots ruining the special dynamic of a human run ramp. The energy, the artistry and teamwork that power every turn. But the truth is that’s emotive and illogical claptrap. The machines that are described will never slip, trip or dent the aircraft door while they are daydreaming. It’s called human error for a reason after-all. In their hydraulic powered hands, the hallowed goal of every operation: safety, quality and flawless OTP are ours to attain.

The early signs of the age of automation are there with TLD’s driverless pushback tug and Swissport/Finnair using artificial intelligence to anticipate delays to arrival times at Helsinki Airport. The Covid-19 pandemic is going to be a primer for a whole lot more. It will be pioneered by those humans who see past the sci-fi flicks which play on our primal fear of a computerised dystopia.

In a sector, clinging to the concept of stakeholder collaboration as a life-raft through this pandemic – the most intelligent combination may well be between us and AI robots. Human plus machine is a binary code adding up to infinite possibilities for aviation.

P.S. FYI, this article was not written by the Gosbot 5000 after a computer-led coup at GHI HQ. The ideas expressed are heavily influence by author Yuval Noah Harari in his wonderful book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Please check out the book by clicking here.

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