Autumn 2019

DFW tests autonomous baggage mover airside

Following on from the theme of Aurrigo’s autonomous baggage dolly being tested on the ramp at London Heathrow International Airport, Dallas/Fort Worth Airport (DFW) in the US has acted as the host for a test of Vanderlande’s FLEET autonomous terminal baggage moving vehicle

DFW tested the FLEET autonomous vehicle system in the recheck area of its Terminal D. The system was trialled with transfer passengers who arrived on international flights and then connected through DFW; the robotic FLEET could handle almost 450 bags an hour.

Customers who participated in the pilot programme used one of four self-bag drop units and identified the airline for their connecting flight using the touch screen at the unit. Each FLEET vehicle then moved an individual piece of luggage, transferring the passenger’s bag to the appropriate baggage belt.

“DFW is testing the process to see how we might provide our customers with a more seamless journey using the award-winning technology within our current baggage infrastructure, and integrating automation for efficiency,” informed Khaled Naja, DFW’s executive vice president of infrastructure and development, during the trial.

“As we go through the pilot programme, DFW will evaluate this new technology and assess potential applications of robots and autonomous vehicles at different points within the airport.”

Andrew Manship, Vanderlande’s executive vice president airports, added: “This particular application is both exciting and challenging for us, because FLEET will be working in a passenger area.

“Vanderlande believes FLEET aligns with the airport’s vision, because they have a strong commitment to improving the passenger experience, as well as showcasing the latest innovations.”

Vanderlande describes FLEET as using “intelligent autonomous vehicle technology” to obviate the need for fixed conveyors and sorting systems. Each individual vehicle carries a single bag and determines the optimal route through an airport.

FLEET also consumes up to 50% less energy compared to traditional baggage handling systems, according to the supplier. Its design means that vehicles can be recycled – and real-time track and trace of individual bags can be facilitated, taking the performance of any baggage operation to the next level.

Koen Evers, general manager FLEET for Vanderlande, talked to Airside about the innovative benefits of the system on trial at DFW. The applications where FLEET provides the highest value (its so-called ‘sweet spots’) can be seen in three areas, he says:

  • Flexible processes: Areas where a lot of flexibility is required in terms of routes, differentiated handling (priority bags), or where changes are expected. Also, FLEET offers benefits in terms of processes where scalability and expandability are important. Typical applications in this regard include medium-sized screening clusters
  • Lean design: Areas where a high level of automation (with many sort destinations) and a high level of redundancy are needed, and where a traditional system would quickly lead to an overdesigned installation. Also, benefits are significant in those cases an on-site team is needed to guarantee certain performance levels: it can be more efficiently organised with FLEET technology as the number of bag jammers and maintenance staff is significantly lower. Typical applications include medium- to large-sized sort systems
  • Temporary systems: Areas where a temporary system can provide value, for instance during the phasing of a major baggage handling system (BHS) overhaul, where FLEET can provide temporary capacity that can be moved during subsequent phases. Also, there are benefits when quick implementation is needed: for instance, to comply with screening requirements. A typical application might be a temporary system from check-in to make-up, including screening during a particular event (sport events, exhibitions and so on)

The primary goal of the trial at DFW was to validate FLEET in a real operational airport environment, Evers notes. “Combining FLEET with the self-bag drop, we were able to improve passenger experience. DFW would like to offer passengers the freedom to go to any of the four self-bag drops at the recheck areas. So each self-bag drop should be able to deliver the bag to the required output location.”

Meeting the challenge

The challenges posed by the trial environment at DFW were not insignificant, Evers explains. FLEET allows transfer passengers at the airport to use one of four self-bag drop units, from which an autonomous vehicle collected the bag. From this point, the vehicle transported an individual piece of luggage to one of two exits depending on whether the passenger had selected the main carrier, or another airline. In total, six FLEET vehicles were operational during the trial.

“So with FLEET being visible to transfer passengers at the airport, this brought the challenge to operate in the passenger area without disturbing operations and passenger flow,” he notes.

“Through this innovative new approach, testing and commissioning of the system was entirely different when compared to a traditional BHS,” Evers points out. “We set up the whole system in our facility in Atlanta, where we were able to fully test and commission it off-site.

“Knowing the boundary of the transfer area means that we can create an exact replica of the environment, map potential routes and see how the system performs. Following our initial work, we went to the airport and tested the routing in the real environment. The new approach allows for a fast and seamless implementation at site without disturbing the operations and passenger flow.

“It was decided that during the trial period the FLEET system would only be tested during specific hours during the day. For this reason, it was important that the area could be switched from manual to FLEET and the other way around within two minutes. This went really well, demonstrating the flexibility of the system.”

The co-operation between Vanderlande and DFW throughout the project was close, says Evers. “The two organisations maintained regular contact about the challenges being faced by the airport, and how innovation could help,” he recalls.

“To maximise the user experience for travellers, Vanderlande and DFW held a series of workshops to discuss the current challenges faced by the airport, as well as any expected future issues. We were asked to assess the current setup at DFW, offer insights into potential improvements, and analyse what could be the next best step for the airport. This includes situations that passengers encounter at the airport’s different touchpoints.

“At the same time we were discussing our latest innovation, FLEET, with DFW. DFW was enthusiastic about this solution, especially due to its flexibility, and eager to validate it in a real-world environment.

“Combining the two led to the idea of using the solution in this highly visible public space. The transfer area was perfectly suited in that we could create a small setup to showcase our technology. By approaching the situation from a user experience perspective, we can match the parameters of FLEET while delivering the best possible type of solution for the passenger.”

Evers enthuses: “DFW has a clear roadmap when it comes to technology, and is always interested in testing new technologies for possible future uses.”

The trial lasted for seven weeks. “We are very happy with the trial results and excited at looking at potential applications for FLEET in the future,” he adds.

Building on success

FLEET is already in operation at a number of locations, including:

Rotterdam The Hague Airport (part of the Schiphol Group): In November 2018 FLEET commenced live operations at Rotterdam The Hague Airport (RTHA) in the Netherlands. This was the first airport to use FLEET in an operational environment. “For us, it was important to have a flexible, efficient, sustainable system that could be scaled up and down as needed,” says Ron Louwerse, director of Rotterdam The Hague Airport. “We needed a new baggage system because the current one was very outdated, but we needed it to be flexible enough to manage future growth. FLEET gave us the opportunity to trial a system that was independent of the actual number of bags.”

Lelystad Airport (part of the Schiphol Group): The next roll-out of FLEET was at Lelystad Airport in the Netherlands, where FLEET represents the complete baggage system, including transport to and from the hold and baggage screening.

Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA): Vanderlande announced last February a partnership agreement with Airport Authority Hong Kong (AAHK) to further develop and apply FLEET in the real-world environment of one of the world’s busiest passenger airports.

This collaborative programme allows Vanderlande to work on the various application areas of FLEET and test these innovations in a live airport environment. HKIA will benefit from being able to see at close hand how autonomous vehicles can help to improve the efficiency of the baggage handling process, enhance ergonomic working conditions for ground staff and future-proof the airport’s baggage handling operations.

Steven Yiu, deputy director, service delivery for AAHK, says: “We are delighted to join forces on this programme that helps to realise our aspiration in being a leader in technology and innovation among international airports.

“As one of the busiest passenger airports in the world, we look forward to enhancing passenger experience and daily operations in terms of baggage handling efficiency through the partnership with Vanderlande in further developing and testing FLEET in a live environment.”

London Heathrow International Airport: Installation of a demonstration system has started at London Heathrow. As with DFW, the intention is to test and validate the value and reliability of the FLEET solution for future applications.

Netherlands-based Vanderlande specialises in baggage handling systems at airports, as well as process automation systems used in warehouses. In the aviation market, its baggage handling systems are believed to move 4.2 billion pieces of luggage around the world each year (11.5 million per day). Its systems are in use in 600 airports, including 14 of the world’s biggest.