Coming Soon: The Autonomous Airport

Courtesy Jan Seifert

Courtesy Jan Seifert

Autonomous vehicles have fascinated like few other technologies this year. From UBER testing a self-driving car service in Pittsburgh to Mercedes-Benz rolling out Sprinter “robovans” complete with delivery robots, the future feels a whole lot closer than it did even just a few years ago.

But flying under the public’s radar is how the same technology is transforming the world of air travel. A swell of change bubbles up from not only our roadways, but all the way out to our jetways. Because of this, we can’t talk about airport design without mentioning the creeping influence of autonomous technology both inside and outside the passenger terminal.

Airports have been using the concept of autonomous robotic technology in baggage handling systems for years. More recently, the use of robots has spread to the public-facing airport environment worldwide. Indianapolis International Airport, for example, has been using them since 2014 to connect passengers to airport staff for directions and other basic needs.

While the advancements in autonomous people helpers excites, the potential being realized for automated people movers drops even more jaws.

From Point A to Point B

Personal Rapid Transit, or PRT for short, has been in the works since the United States’ started its ambitious interstate highway system in the 1950s. The technology blends traditional mass transit – think buses and subways – with a personal vehicle. Small pods, usually carrying between four and six people, scoot along on a network of specially-built guideways with the goal of taking you more directly to your end destination.

Only four PRT systems operate in the world today, with one in the airport world. London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5 launched its system earlier this decade, a year after a similar system started rolling in the United Arab Emirates’ Masdar City.

These two recent examples may be just the beginning. New larger varieties of pods can comfortably take more than two dozen passengers – say, an entire group of first class passengers – and run without any fixed guideway. Prototype testing has popped up in Singapore and the Netherlands, both instances operating without guideways and drivers.

Estimated Time of Arrival: Now

The biggest promise of this trackless technology lies in flexibility and efficiency. Rails and guideways are rigid and expensive to lay down. An all-electric system means savings on the operational end as well. Last but definitely not least, the ability for on-demand service will delight consumers. This total package makes for a technology to use in the moment and beyond. The airport terminal of the future, in other words, has already arrived.

But first, engineers, designers and planners need to recognize the importance of baking in flexibility to their spaces to accommodate these new possibilities. Right now at Populous, we’re integrating current transportation networks like Lyft and UBER directly into our clients’ terminals with an eye toward the next wave of services. The ride is only getting started. To learn how you can join the journey, send us a note.



Choi_DerrickJoin Derrick Choi, Populous’ aviation practice leader, on Wednesday, Oct. 26, at 11 a.m. CST as he and other industry experts explore the impact of next-generation technologies like autonomous vehicles on the future passenger experience. Registration is now open for the free Airport Consultants Council webinar.

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