Autonomous robots are now delivering food in a US airport
Although some people are starting to venture back into air travel, the more that they can continue physical distancing, the better. A new robotic in-airport food delivery service has been introduced in order to help them do so.
Currently in use at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, the system incorporates a fleet of four-wheeled autonomous "Ottobots" made by robotics company Ottonomy.
In the present setup, travelers in the Concourse B area of the airport start by using a dedicated app to purchase food, beverages or travel products from select stores located elsewhere in the facility. Once their order has been placed, staff at the relevant store place the item(s) in the cargo compartment of one of the Ottobots, then send it on its way.
As the robot makes its way through the airport, it uses a LiDAR module and other sensors to avoid obstacles such as people, while also utilizing what Ottonomy describes as a "contextual mobility navigation" system to keep track of its whereabouts within the facility. Although we're still waiting to hear back about what that system entails, other indoor navigation systems typically incorporate things like Bluetooth beacons, strategically placed camera-readable QR codes, or Wi-Fi signals.
The app shows the customer where the Ottobot currently is within the airport, and alerts them once it's reached their location – it also provides them with an order-specific QR code. When the customer holds that code up to a scanner on the robot, it responds by unlocking and opening the lid of its cargo compartment so they can retrieve their purchase.
The current delivery system was designed based on user feedback from a pilot project that took place in the same airport late last year. Customer feedback from this program will in turn be used when further expanding the system.
UPDATE (Dec. 20/02): A representative for the company has informed us that the Ottobots are able to find their way within the airport by initially creating a "digital twin" – a computer map – of the serviceable area, then subsequently using onboard hardware to track their location within that map in real time.