Will robots take over our airports?

CNN  — 

Would you tip a robotic waiter?

That’ll be the question vexing travelers eating 3D-printed meals prepared and served by robots, if one restaurant boss gets his way.

Hong Kong restaurant group Maxim’s wants to open a smart restaurant at the city’s international airport to make the facility even more efficient.

The proposal, which was floated earlier this year, will “improve travelers’ culinary experience,” says George Mew, Maxim’s director of manufacturing. “Raw materials will be freshly prepared in the smart kitchen by robotic arms and automatic machines.”

It might not be as strange as it sounds. Robots are staffing airports around the world.

At Incheon International Airport in Seoul, South Korea, for example, robots escort late or lost travelers to their departure gates. At New York City’s LaGuardia Airport, robots are equipped with cameras and act as “another set of eyes to supplement existing security,” according to airport operator LaGuardia Gateway Partners. Meanwhile, at Singapore Changi Airport robots clean the floors for 10 hours a day.

Robots: the solution to all problems?

Nearly half of the world’s airlines and 32% of its airports are “seeking a partner to further investigate robotics and automated vehicles in the next three years,” according to the 2018 Air Transport IT Insights survey.

By 2030, robots are expected to have replaced check-in processes, according to a report published this year by UK-based inventory management company Vero Solutions.

Robots at Singapore Changi Airport hard at work.

In 2016, Geneva Airport tested a robot called Leo, developed by SITA and robotics company BlueBotics. Passengers checked in by scanning their boarding pass on Leo, then dropping their bag inside the robot’s secure area. Leo then delivered it to security personnel.

“Airport operators are experimenting with robots or intelligent machines to help check-in baggage or assist passengers find their way through busy airports,” says Gustavo Pina, director of SITA Lab, a Swiss telecoms firm that specializes in air transport technology.

Other robots exist simply for pleasure. Two years ago, Glasgow International Airport, in Scotland, trialed GLAdys, a robot that guided passengers – and also sang and danced to Christmas tunes.

So could robots take over from humans in airports completely?

A humanoid unveiled as part of the Haneda Airport robot experiment project.

Not mainstream

Pina thinks there is some way to go before robotics become mainstream.

Maxim’s proposed Hong Kong airport restaurant staffed by robots, for example, would have human talent working backstage to ensure quality control, according to Mew.

Some tasks simply require human input, says Pina.

“Our research shows that travelers prefer to use automated services rather than human interaction when completing simple steps in the journey, be it check-in, bag drop or boarding,” he explains.

“However, when you have a problem with your journey or documentation, travelers would prefer to speak to a human being.”

Still, robots can help free humans up from mundane activities, he adds. This would allow them to “focus on complex, service-oriented tasks – where the personal touch is really appreciated.”

Whether assembling a bowl of noodles is a task for a robot or human remains up for debate.