Case Study: A clear path to preventing lost baggage
To help OTTO Motors UX design the world’s greatest airport baggage movement system. Their autonomous material movement solution will streamline airport baggage handling by improving throughput, reduce lost baggage and enhance the user experience for customers and baggage handlers.
Research and Insights
It’s one of a traveller’s worst nightmares — being the last person at the baggage carousel and coming to the slow realisation that your bag isn’t coming.
Clearpath is a trailblazer in the world of robotics, its self-driving vehicles relieve the stress of material movement so a workforce is able to focus on higher value activities. The technology is aimed at improving the safety of workers, especially in mining and argiculture and wherever heavy lifting is a concern.
To begin my research, I focused on a company called SITA and their LEO luggage bot. Leo is currently being tested at the Geneva airport in Switzerland; it is situated outside of the airport and inside the terminal as you enter. LEO can check you into your flight and take your baggage all in under 2 minutes. As I dove deeper into LEO’s technology, I decided to talk to people who travel frequently and would call an airport their second home at times.
Their first impressions when they saw the video of LEO was:
“When I am rushing to catch a flight, I am usually trying to get inside as quickly as possible, especially if it’s winter or raining, I would not want to fumble around with LEO while standing outside.”
“I don’t know if I would feel comfortable leaving my luggage alone with LEO and not know if it got to my plane; is there a confirmation? Would I just stand there and watch it roll away?”
“Airports are so congested to begin with, adding robots to the mix might make things a bit more chaotic. I like how it’s aware of its surroundings, but what if it gets stopped by a big group of people and is unable to proceed?”
These were all valid points, but is having a baggage bot like LEO, which is more of a luxury, the most efficient use of Clearpath’s technology? The problem of lost luggage and throughput does not lay with users checking luggage, even though one of the biggest pain points with travellers are long line ups at the counter. New technologies like Self Bag Tag allow travellers to print their own bag tags and affix them to their luggage, then drop it off a conveyor belt; solutions like this reflect how these concerns are slowly being alleviated. Since Clearpath uses robots to remove human error, what solution could I provide?
The long and winding road
We know that travellers are already paranoid about their luggage getting lost and go to great measures to make sure it is checked in properly. We also know that when baggage is checked and on its way to the airplane it often travels along many kilometres worth of conveyor belts, while a highly complex system of robots scan luggage at various checkpoints. This is all centrally monitored by a team of extremely skilled individuals.
Our problem is what happens at the end of the long conveyor; quite simply, baggage is poorly handled by airline personnel either by being loaded onto the wrong trolley, or being sent to the wrong airplane. In recent years, dozens of angry travellers have taken to social media to share videos and stories of their luggage being mishandled or being dropped carelessly into a luggage bin or on the tarmac. Most recently, a Kitchener musician is blaming Air Canada for damaging his acoustic guitar while it was being transported on a flight from New York City to Toronto.
The passengers are only one of the stakeholders. There’s the bag boys and the flight crew to keep in mind as well. How can I create a solution that helps all of them? I also have to consider a problem that Clearpath and other AI start-ups face; their solutions potentially displace people in lower paying jobs. If Clearpath can create solutions that don’t lead to political resistance, they can win even bigger.
I came up with a design that would involve using multiple OTTO 1500s, potentially while tethered to each other, an OTTO Manipulator and a mobile device that can activate, monitor and keep track of the OTTO’s navigation. The OTTOs will reside in each baggage handling area and always be queued up waiting to receive luggage from the Manipulator:
- Once the baggage has reached the end of the conveyor belt, the operator (formerly the human baggage loader) receives the order and activates the baggage loading system on his device using an interactive user interface called the OTTO ABC (Automatic Baggage Carrier). On his display he will also see important flight information such as the destination of the luggage as well as how many bags are expected to arrive and an approximate ETA of how long it should take to load the bags and deliver it to the plane. This readout can be shared with the flight crew and pilot which can be relayed to passengers.
- When the OTTO ABC system activates, the manipulator will check and see if the OTTO is online and queued up on the magnetic strip and then begin placing luggage onto the OTTO like an intricate game of Tetris. When its maximum weight is reached, the Manipulator will start stacking luggage onto the next OTTO and so on.
- When OTTO is loaded and secured, the operator can use his device to confirm which plane to travel to. Using a RealSense R200 vision sensor, the OTTO will utilize the accurately mapped out environment and navigate to the destination. In the event late luggage arrives, instead of being hand carried to the plane, the operator can summon another OTTO to quickly deliver it. This steady stream of luggage throughput eliminates human operated trolleys from going back and forth to planes and prevents any mix-up at the conveyor belt resulting in lost luggage or broken items.
- When the OTTO arrives at the plane, baggage handlers are there to receive the luggage and load it onto the plane. Once empty, OTTO returns to the terminal for its next load.
- Once the plane has arrived at its destination, a similar process happens in reverse. Once the bags are rolled off the plane and onto the OTTO, they are taken into the baggage handling area where they are automatically unloaded and separated and directed to the arrivals carousel or for transfer to another flight.
I presented this flow to some users to gain some valuable feedback:
“How can you make sure the robots are flowing as efficiently as they can be on their own?”
“How can you avoid traffic jams or conflicts with too many robots on the tarmac or all trying to pick up the same load?”
“How can you make sure that a person who makes a mistake or is slow doesn’t delay the pickups of the bots?”
These are all important considerations. Clearpath’s OTTO system has the ability to be flexible and make decisions to turn and take different routes, tethering the units to each other could avoid traffic jams, and proprietary software and digital baggage queues could avoid robots picking up the same load.
Automating this process would allow human baggage handlers to focus on tasks the robots couldn’t do, like locate lost bags. We would promote those personnel from baggage handlers to baggage managers.
OTTO strives to make jobs easier and safer, having prompt luggage pickup times would allow higher throughput and get travellers on their way faster.