Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen ground-breaking innovation with artificial intelligence. It’s the future and it is not limited to one geographic location or occupational field. While complete automation of the aviation industry may be decades away, it has already begun.
The Concept of the Autonomous Airport
Close your eyes and picture what an autonomous airport could look like. Imagine the airport as its own entity with eyes, a brain, and a nervous system. An entity that can recognize and manage events, such as a late flight, on its own. In this example, the eyes, or cameras, recognize that a flight is going to be late. The information is then transmitted to the brain where it uses an optimizer bot, such as a gate manager, to determine the optimal solution. Once it has the optimum, the data is transmitted throughout the system so required resources can be properly allocated.
How AI Has Already Done the Impossible
If this seems impossible to you, think about the advancements made with AI. Even just 20 years ago, life-saving cameras, food delivery robots, and autonomous cars would have seemed impossible. Yet, in Virgina, FLIR Systems, Inc. developed two AI traffic cameras that can predict traffic patterns, reduce congestion, and improve accident response to make streets safer for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians.1 In Arizona, Starship Technologies and Sun Devil Dining created robots for contactless delivery of food to college students on ASU’s Tempe campus during the pandemic.2 Also, in the Phoenix area, Waymo has been testing driverless cars since 2017.3
How Autonomy Will be Achieved
Before the airport can be autonomous, we must first achieve surface and process surveillance and optimization.
Beginning with surveillance, artificial intelligence can use cameras to see and provide data on surface operations. The cameras can look at a ramp, determine when crucial events occur, and create a timestamp of each event. For example, they can tell when the tow has begun and ended, when the jet bridge makes contact with the aircraft, when the aircraft has been refueled, and more. AI has the ability to take a visual look at an airport and tell you in data points exactly what is happening. In an industry where one of our biggest problems is data accuracy, this is critical.
Once you have accurate data, you can then move forward with optimizing your digital processes. Some will claim we already optimize our operations in terms of crew, schedule, and flight planning which are features of artificial intelligence. However, while these assist the operation, they are still individual processes. Artificial intelligence helps to establish a single self-controlled entity where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Developing the autonomous airport cannot be done by one company alone. It will require collaboration between various companies that specialize in AI cameras, gate management optimization, crew optimization, etc. It will then be AI’s role to bring the tools together to create one self-controlled entity.
Benefits of Artificial Intelligence
- Data accuracy
- Timely information sharing among key stakeholders
- Optimization of the entire operation
- Sustainable practices
If the autonomous airport is achieved, our industry will see improved data accuracy and data sharing. With the right information and solutions, we will be better equipped to handle irregular operations allowing us to reduce fuel burn and waste that can negatively impact our environment.
About the Author
My name is Noel Alfonso and I am the Director of Air Traffic Automation at PASSUR Aerospace. I have 18 years of experience in the airline industry, with an emphasis on operation research and process improvement efforts. For over ten years before joining the airline industry, and as a Six Sigma Master Blackbelt, I performed as an international process improvement consultant and Six Sigma Trainer in various enterprises and sectors. I hold a master’s degree in Applied and Mathematical Statistics and a B.S. in Chemical Engineering.
1 FLIR Systems Announces Artificial Intelligence Traffic Cameras for Predictive Traffic Management. (2020, November 9). Retrieved January 27, 2021, from https://www.flir.com/news-center/public-safety/flir-systems-announces-artificial-intelligence-traffic-cameras-for-predictive-traffic-management/
2 Kobley, L. (2020, September 16). Robots bring contactless food delivery to campus. Retrieved January 27, 2021, from https://www.statepress.com/article/2020/09/spcommunity-starship-robot-partnership-brings-contactless-delivery
3 Randazzo, R. (2020, October 09). Are you ready to ride in a car without a driver? Waymo vans going public in the East Valley. Retrieved January 27, 2021, from https://www.azcentral.com/story/money/business/consumers/2020/10/08/waymo-driverless-program-metro-phoenix-open-public/5913106002/