Five future travel tech innovations

23 Nov 2016 by Craig Bright
SITA Leo Baggage Robot

Earlier this month, the latest technology developments in the travel industry, from biometric scanning to the proper use of big data, were on display and in discussion at the Future Travel Experience expo in Singapore.

Business Traveller Asia-Pacific reveals some of the latest technological advances and innovations, from the expo and beyond, that may change the way we fly in the near and distant future.

Baggage tracking

Luggage brand Rimowa recently launched what it claims is the first luggage digital check-in solution, the Rimowa Electronic Tag. Built into the luggage, the tag allows travellers to check in their luggage remotely using an app on their smartphone and drop it off at the airport. Rimowa’s app will communicate with airlines’ own apps to send flight information directly to the bag via Bluetooth, which can be viewed using the in-built E-ink display.

Lufthansa was the first airline partner to adopt the technology, with the service up and running at Munich and Frankfurt airports. However, Eva Air also recently announced they would be adopting the technology, with other industry players currently trialling the solution.

Robotic assistance

Back in October, Sita Labs – the technology research arm of IT firm Sita – toured its autonomous, self-propelling baggage robot in Singapore and Hong Kong. Named Leo after the famed Renaissance-era inventor Leonardo Da Vinci, the automaton represents the company’s exploration into the future of baggage handling for commercial flights.

Leo is designed to be able to check in luggage, print baggage tags and transport two suitcases at a time. Passengers use the robot’s “Scan&fly” function to drop luggage into compartments on the robot that close once bags are tagged and loaded, and can only be reopened by the operator unloading the baggage in the airport. The robot has the ability to function in high-traffic areas, such as an airport, thanks to its in-built obstacle-avoidance technology, and if it gains traction, could provide a means for luggage to be collected, checked in, transported and loaded without any human involvement other than the passenger. Since the bag drop is done outside, it wouldn’t even have to enter the terminal building.

Aside from its tour in Singapore and Hong Kong, Leo has also undergone trial runs at Geneva Airport where travellers checked in their bags using the robot.

Meanwhile, back in February, Japan Airlines began trialling a new android guide at Tokyo Haneda International Airport, which offers travellers flight information including schedules, destination and weather updates. Known as Nao, the robot features voice-recognition software and is able to communicate in Japanese, Chinese and English.;

Chip scanner

Scandinavian airline SAS has a number of interesting new innovations that it is looking towards, from fully interactive and visual digital walls in its lounges providing up-to-date flight information and allowing travellers to visually explore each individual flight’s cabin layout in three dimensions – the first of its walls is set to launch next year at the airline’s new Oslo lounge – to recently giving iPads to all crew members and using data about customers’ previous trips to improve service on subsequent journeys.

The carrier’s innovation lab, meanwhile, has also been looking into a near-field communication (NFC) ring with passenger information that can be swiped when boarding the aircraft. But easily its most “out there” concept is using a programmable chip inserted into a person’s hand.

Functioning much how one would scan a travel card for use on public transport, the chip would remove the need for any physical documentation or devices whatsoever. “This is not only on the concept drawing board, it is a reality,” said Eivind Roald, SAS’s executive vice president commercial at a recent media briefing in Hong Kong. “Whether this will be the future or not, I don’t know, but it shows something about what we are doing in our innovation labs.”

Admittedly such an “invasive” innovation would be likely to take a fair amount of time to gain meaningful traction among travellers. Add to the fact that SAS is yet to roll out even a scan-able watch, let alone a chip embedded under the skin, and it’s probably safe to say this won’t be an innovation we’ll see coming to the market in the immediate future.

Avionics and IT company Rockwell Collins, meanwhile, announced back in March 2015 that it was developing a tool that combined its ARINC vMUSE and ARINC Veripax technology with its Atkins Identity Management platform to enable scanning using travellers’ biometrics. Facial recognition, as well as fingerprint and iris scanning technologies could match a person’s biometrics with their passport and boarding pass information, enabling travellers to check in more efficiently and board by themselves.;

Concept cabin

Airbus has put a fair amount of time into researching future tech developments for the aviation sector, having previously published its “The Future by Airbus” report back in 2010 that looks at how the industry may look in the year 2050.

A number of the leaps forward pertain to making air travel more eco-friendly, however the aircraft manufacturer’s “Concept Cabin” highlights just how radically different the passenger experience could become three decades from now. Perhaps most notable is the manufacturer’s estimation that traditional class tiers could one day be replaced by zones based on individual travellers’ interests, ranging from having business meetings with people from around to world to zones offering relaxation and activities.

The Vitalising Zone, for instance, would comprise seats surrounded by a bionic structure with membranes that could turn transparent at the wave of a hand, offering panoramic views outside the aircraft. Meanwhile, in the Interaction Zone, touch-sensitive panels could scan and download information about individual passengers, offering them a bespoke experience ranging from virtual reality golf, tennis and baseball to interactive virtual shopping.

Augmented reality

When the augmented reality app Pokémon Go launched earlier this year, its popularity took the world by storm and while the vast gatherings of people playing the game in public have since largely disappeared, it showed the technology had great potential to capture the public’s interest.

Recently, tech giant Google teamed up with San Jose International Airport to test a new augmented reality technology platform called Tango, which uses computer vision to enable devices to understand their surroundings without the need for technology such as GPS. This allows for the use of location-based augmented reality apps that can be accurate to within about a centimetre, including a custom SJC app that has since been tested by members of Google’s Project Tango team and Aisle411, the company that developed the app, at the airport’s Terminal B.

Meanwhile, British Airways demoed the app earlier this summer during the launch of its direct San Jose-London Heathrow route, enabling passengers to use the app for wayfinding, viewing augmented reality digital billboards with destination information and to search for F&B options based on their location and time availability. Floating 3D images were also part of the app, including the airport’s Shark Cage restaurant which had a 3D shark swimming around outside the venue that was visible when using the app.

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