Robots and facial recognition technology are set to transform the way we travel. Your face will soon be your passport to frictionless flying.
To misquote Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull, “There’s never been a more exciting time to be a business traveller.” Exciting, because although travel has become increasingly tiresome over recent years, there are clear indications technology will shortly make it much smoother.
For example, a baggage robot may sound like something out of a science fiction film. But air transport IT company SITA has unveiled just such a groundbreaking creation.
Meet Leo the friendly baggage robot
Named Leo (after Leonardo da Vinci), the robot meets passengers at the airport, checks them in, prints bag tags and then takes their bags away for processing. Thankfully, to make sure it doesn’t bump into anyone or anything in its enthusiasm to speed up the previously clunky and cumbersome process, SITA had the foresight to build in obstacle-avoidance technology.
Speaking at Leo’s launch in June 2017 at Mexico City Airport, SITA vice-president Alex Covarrubias says, “Robotics and automation, along with biometric identification and artificial intelligence, are changing the way airports will be designed in the future, making travel easier every step of the way and improving the passenger experience.”
Face to face with the future at Brisbane Airport
Here in Australia, Brisbane Airport in partnership with SITA and Air New Zealand has launched Australia’s first trial of the facial recognition technology that’s set to transform the future of travel.
SITA’s Smart Path technology allows passengers to present their passport, boarding card and face image at a self-service kiosk at check-in. Then, when they’re ready to board, they access the aircraft from an automated boarding gate that uses face-recognition technology to verify their identity.
The Brisbane trial is an important step on the journey towards using what’s called “the single passenger token” through the whole process. By capturing passengers’ biometrics and travel information into a single digital record – the single passenger token – travellers will soon be able to use this token as identification at each step along their journey.
No more ‘please hold your passport open at the photo page’
Brisbane Airport Corporation’s general manager strategic planning and development, Roel Hellemons, explains how this will work: “The traveller will enrol with check-in (ultimately also possibly off-airport with a mobile phone) and doesn't have to show his/her passport or a boarding pass during the journey anymore. All checks will be done with facial recognition, making the journey easier and more streamlined.”
Hellemons continues, “When we are happy about the success rates, process time, technical reliability, customer experience etc, we will then go to a next stage/trial and include other steps of the passenger journey (bag-drop, border control).
Speaking to the UK’s Independent newspaper about the Brisbane trial, SITA's product development lead, Stephen Challis, says the Brisbane trial has done “very well” and is “a significant gain for passengers in terms of speed and convenience”.
Sadly however, Australian travellers will have to wait a while to see Leo in action. Hellemons says there are “no plans at this stage” to put him through his paces at Brisbane Airport.
Hotels raise their game
Although airports are on well on the way to becoming frictionless, checking in at hotels is often a jarring experience that rapidly brings the business traveller down to earth. Thankfully, this is set to change.
Starwood, now part of Marriott, introduced keyless check-in in 2014 and hot on its heels is Hilton, which is rolling out its Digital Key concept across the world.
Members of the Hilton Honors program can check-in and select their room from a digital floor plan or list directly from a mobile device, tablet or computer at all US properties across Hilton’s 11 brands. It’s expected to available at all Hilton properties worldwide by end of 2017. Guests can further customise their stay by purchasing a room upgrade (if available) and requesting amenities to be delivered to their room before arrival.
Speaking to the UK’s Independent newspaper, Hilton chief marketing officer Geraldine Calpin says, “You will not want to stay in a hotel that does not have this.” This is only the beginning for Hilton. “We have plans beyond this,” says Calpin. “We believe that everyone wants to control their life from the palm of their hand. We will enable you to personalise the in-room experience – things like television and temperature – all from your smartphone.”
Popping up on a screen near you
Perky “chatbots” are an increasingly common feature on travel websites and social media as companies get to grips with how artificial intelligence (AI) can help improve travel planning. Airlines such as Qantas and Air New Zealand are among the most enthusiastic early adopters, using them to answer commonly asked queries rather than having customers trawl through endless lists of FAQs.
Air New Zealand’s helpful chap is called Bravo Oscar Tango – but he says you can call him Oscar; while Qantas has opted for the more formal Qantas Concierge.
Like other chatbots, Oscar will use AI technology to learn as he interacts with clients and become more friendly and helpful.
Air New Zealand chief digital officer Avi Golan says Oscar has been launched as a beta product, allowing customers to play an active role in training him. “Given Oscar learns natural language, it makes sense he learns directly from our customers the types of information they want to know and the language they use, rather than airline jargon,” he says.
Qantas has taken a slightly different tack, with Qantas Concierge being a Facebook Messenger bot and marking the beginning of Qantas as an official Facebook partner.
Kristin Carlos, Qantas head of digital and entertainment says, “With over 15 million people on Facebook in Australia, growing our presence with the social-networking service makes sense. Qantas Concierge is designed to save customers the time and energy involved in planning a trip while empowering them to self-serve from a virtual library of rich travel content.”
Beacons beckon you through the crowds
Europe’s third-busiest airport, Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, plans to be the world’s best digital airport by 2018.
Schiphol’s digital lead, Christa Bakker, says in a Dutch TV interview reported by English-language website I Amsterdam, that travellers must tackle several logistical issues before they even reach the airport, such as traffic jams, and that these can be overcome by using the Schiphol app. Once the traveller arrives at the airport, the app uses data from some 2000 beacons around the airport to get them to their gate quickly.
Liquids and laptops can relax
The beacons also monitor and predict the waiting time at security queues so that travellers can be warned if they’re longer than normal. Queues that could in any case be shorter than those at other airports thanks to a new CT scanner Schiphol’s experimenting with, that would let travellers keep liquids and laptops inside their bags.
It’s reassuring that travellers aren’t the only ones who think that the entire process of flying needs to be shaken up from start to finish. The airline, airport and IT industries all understand the system is ripe for change. And that they can make big bucks and beat the competition by harnessing the latest technology to make travelling a seamless and frictionless experience.
Gadgets worth packing
The list of gadgets that business travellers take with them on their trips is endless. Here’s a short selection of some of the most useful and essential.
Smartphone: More essential than ever
In the wake of the bans on carrying anything larger than a smartphone on board aircraft on certain flights, the smartphone has become even more indispensable.
This is because the so-called laptop ban doesn’t just apply to laptops, it also includes “tablets, e-readers, cameras, portable DVD players, electronic game units larger than a smartphone, travel printers/scanners.
Given your phone will have to work harder for longer, it makes sense to invest in a battery case that will more than its double battery life while adding just 6mm or so to the thickness of your phone.
Power pack: For peak energy levels
When it comes to external battery chargers, size matters. They may be becoming smaller and cheaper but the bigger they are, the more power they can store. One that weighs less than 500g will be able to charge a smartphone seven times. And some of the bigger ones come with two USB ports, so you can help a friend in need.
The go bag: A great military concept
The go bag is the military’s way of making sure that no matter how quickly they have get out the door they never leave anything vital behind. So pack a small bag with every charger, adapter, power pack, memory card and battery you could possibly need on a trip,
Travel router: Your secure WiFi hot spot
A multi-purpose travel router lets you create your own secure wireless connection in your hotel room. Ideal if security is a concern or if your hotel is one of the dinosaurs still charging outrageous fees for WiFi. It’s also handy when too many people are trying to access hotel WiFi and the speeds are dropping off.
A Bluetooth tracking device: Lost and found
There’s never a good time to lose anything important. But it can be much more disastrous on a business trip than at home. Tile is the most popular Bluetooth tracking device, with more than 1 million people who use it to find lost items every day.
It works by attaching a small square white plastic “Tile” to an item such as a phone or your keys. If you misplace it within a 30 metre range, you ring it from the Tile app and the Tile will make a chiming noise or you can find it on the on-screen map.
The benefit of having so many active users is that if you lose something more than 30 metres away, if there’s another Tile user near your lost item its Tile can still chime and update its location on the map.