Autonomous vehicles (AVs) and assisted navigation at airports can help passengers with difficulty navigating...
Some people have difficulty navigating airports, specifically elderly travelers and those with disabilities. We propose a solution that embodies several technological trends, namely apps that assist with navigation, and the use of autonomous vehicles — in this case, wheelchairs or small trolleys.
This will support many of the distancing and hygiene protocols that have been adopted during the COVID-19 epidemic, which are likely to linger after the first wave of the epidemic passes.
Wheelchairs: problems with current navigation
Currently, wheelchairs are the primary solution for passengers requiring assistance. This was a viable solution once but increased travel and busier airports present problems with this:
There is unavailability or insufficient availability of airport/airlines staff to take care of the passengers
As compared to 2010, 66% more people with disabilities or impairment travelled in 2018
Figure 1 adds the solution for specific segments along with the targeted value proposition to airlines.
Typically, it is the bright green and the dark blue segment that will benefit from the proposed solution on top of the lighter green segment, which is already served at airports:
Bright green segment (with identified but unmet needs): the ones who need assistance (identified need) but do not ask for it from airlines staff (unmet need). These are passengers who look for co-passengers in airlines queue, security counters, etc. traveling via the same flight.
Dark blue segment (not comfortable with usage of new technologies): These are typically aged passengers, generally baby boomers or older.
Altogether, the top three segments are in need of assisted navigation.
The three parts to the proposed solution:
Automated guided vehicles (AGV) or intelligent guided vehicles: Assistance wheelchairs at airports to have self-navigation capability by picking up the relevant data (boarding gate, time, etc. from the passengers’ boarding pass).
A smartphone app with navigation built on top of airport internal maps: This app will use Augmented Reality to show the way for the passenger to take. Also, the same app will have a feature that will scan the surroundings to identify any other co-passengers who opted to help others with reaching their boarding gates.
A basic tablet device with the same features as the app.
Assisted navigation: smart boarding pass device
The airlines personnel at the airlines counter can hand over a smart boarding pass to the passenger or download an app on the user’s smartphone (depending on which segment the passenger falls into, passengers in the dark blue segment are generally not comfortable with switching between apps on their smartphone). The airlines personnel will enter the passenger name record (PNR) details of the passenger into the device or the UI of the app. With this, the following functions will be taken care of:
Using internal Google maps guide the passenger to the appropriate boarding gate.
If the user holds out this device to the environment, certain boards/signs that are basic convenience related — washrooms etc. — will be highlighted
Physical alerts/alarms; the device will vibrate every time the user is going in the wrong direction
When boarding begins, device vibrates with sound to alert passenger
If boarding gate changes after having secured the boarding pass, a smart pass will be updated with the new info automatically. The navigation system will also change the destination as per the new info received.
When holding out the device to the environment, other passengers taking the same flight will be highlighted (passengers who have signed up for assistive help to co-passengers)
Language agnostic. Will have earphones that the user can use and the directions will be given in user’s preferred language.
At security check, the passenger’s smart boarding pass is digitally authenticated by biometric recognition/authentication by security personnel, such as a fingerprint swipe
Need to ask passengers if they will sign up for assisted navigation for other co-passengers as indicated in point #4
AGV in airports
The manually pushed wheelchairs in airports today fall short of meeting passenger expectations for a plethora of reasons. They will be replaced by an AGV that will have features from all possible scenarios, including an SOS button for intervention by airlines staff.
The airlines personnel can help the elderly with AGV carts now; helper needs will drop drastically. This cart will transport the passenger requiring assistance to the boarding gate using internal Google maps
A simple wheelchair will have a retrofitted autonomous navigation system; an AGV will make the technology easier. A line follower kind of AGV can be used.
An SOS button on the wheelchair can be pressed by the passenger and can be traced by the airlines staff in case any emergency help is needed.
The AGV will have a button to make a detour possible en route.
The AGV hand rest will have sound and vibration alerts, to notify the passenger of the boarding time
There will be a backend trigger mechanism for the AGV, so airlines can provide information such as boarding gate number, using their interface
The AGV is used within the airport building premises, beyond it there is a manually driven wheelchair
The adoption rates of the proposed solution depend on the perceived value by the airlines, airports, and retail vendors. There is a symbiotic relationship between airports and airlines. Some noteworthy specifics of their dependency are as follows:
Both share a common goal: getting more passengers.
Ownership structure, governance, and institutional framework are all different for all airport-airlines relationships.
For airports, it is about the development of the region/city, so the local government is also interested in its affairs.
Airlines choose airports. Airlines are thus much more powerful today because they can change airports but airports cannot change their location. Airports also as a rule need to treat all airlines equally, same charges, etc. When actually the airlines treat each airport relationship as unique, owing to geographical variations.
Symbiotic relationship; especially with international airlines which are new to a geography, airports can help with local regulations and important connects. Airports, thus, act as the link between airlines and the local help.
Airports help airlines in deciding the route as well owing to sometimes their better understanding of the geography and local factors.
Interactions at airports
Before we can understand the journey of passengers across various combinations of airports (taking off, connecting, landing), it is important to identify the entities present at an airport. This helps single out the entities who will be interacting with the passenger and thus add to and subtract from the overall experience.
As Figure 2 suggests, the entities having direct encounters with the passenger are hospitality/maintenance staff, retail store vendors, flight staff, ground stewards (customer-facing operations staff), airport passenger assistance and/or porter, aircraft internal maintenance/passenger assistance, immigration officers, on ground passenger transport staff and security personnel.
The entities who interact with one or more of these already identified set of individuals are facility manager (tech and IT, utilities), baggage handler, aircraft external maintenance and refuelling.
Typical customer journeys
Any passenger is either getting on a plane or getting off a plane at an airport. Figure 3 has two parts to it: the departures journey, and the arrivals journey, with the connection between the two being unidirectional, possible only from arrival to departures in case of domestic transfer. With domestic transfers, the deplaning and boarding of flights is at the same airport, the aircraft are always different but the carriers may or may not be different. It should be noted, however, that our focus is on domestic travel, and not on international travels.
At airports, checkpoints of the journey are fairly predictable because the journey is defined by the airport itself. The flow is largely fixed, with small variations here and there, such as shopping, food, washrooms, etc. which is defined by the “fuzzy area” in the diagram. In the fuzzy area, the checkpoints are ambiguous so the traveller could be going in any order any number of times, to any number of options. Predictable checkpoints have support staff standing all the time to rely upon, but in the fuzzy area you have no formal support, dependence is on informal or social support. The support being referred to as what is needed to get to the boarding gate if one happens to visit/cross the fuzzy area.
Domestic departures from big airports vs. small airports are significantly different. The dimensions of the problem changes, the number of boarding gates at a small airport is likely a single digit number and easy to locate without navigation assistance. For big airports, following each direction for assistance is of greater importance to reach the boarding gates on time, which is where the proposed solution is handy.
Once the passenger is at the boarding gate ahead of the boarding time, the problem is solved.
An analysis of the typical personas of passengers (Figure 4) on any day at any airport gave us the following result:
In general, the number of passengers requiring assistance is high in both small airports and large hub airports. Some statistics derived from primary research at a small airport (in a tier 2 city in a developing country) are as follows:
On average 22% – 5.56% passengers on any flight (180 capacity) request wheelchair assistance service at a small airport
On any day during rush hours, there are 4-6 flights either arriving or leaving such an airport
Passengers above the age of 65 (without disabilities) in long-haul flights often demand assistance at either end of the flight, due to stiffness, body ache, cramps
The waiting time for a wheelchair to be available to a passenger could be as long as 30 minutes in rush hours at a small airport
The features of the proposed solution, the smart boarding pass or the app, can be extended to benefit the retail stores as well. This will hinge on introduction of gamification using AR on the devices and will also be a mode of engagement with the passengers for the retail stores. With this, the relationship between the airlines, airport, and the retail vendors will be as follows:
Navigating through an airport is not the same for everyone. Addressing the nature of the problem faced by different personas differently is needed. We provided some insight into the problem, the current approaches, and changes possible in the existing solution.
With travel that will take place in the early post Covid-19 era, airports will be stricter, more checks for social distancing, more processes, but the flow will more or less remain the same. Since one of the personas of our analysis is the elderly, it should be noted that fewer people will be traveling anytime soon. When they do travel, COVID-19 measures will require more time to factor in — social distancing, screening processes, etc. For example, the boarding pass will need to be collected at least two hours before the flight departure time (double the previous number). Similarly, boarding may begin much earlier and so on. Passengers will need to allow more time for prospective changes.
“The views expressed in this article are mine and my employer does not subscribe to the substance or veracity of my views.”
— Garima Jain is global autonomous systems evangelist and consultant, Wipro Limited. Abhijit Thapa is product manager, analytics and UX, Mobileum