Brian Cobb is chief innovation officer at Cincinnati/ Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG), which has the reputation for being ahead of the curve when it comes to the development and adoption of new technology. At the heart of this are CVG’s four “innovation verticals”: Transport, Connect, Clean and Secure.

All four are driven to a degree by automation and the need to future-proof the airport against potential labour shortages. It was a case, Cobb said, of asking: “What was the future of employment? What would we have to do? Or what could we be doing [in terms of upskilling labour]?”

Innovation within the transport vertical has one key aim: to curate a true customer experience. Cobb told Airports International: “If you wind the tape back, much of what we have been doing is really trying to work with our employee talent base. If we can really help an employee do their job exceptionally well, it lowers their anxiety and we can help them tailor their capabilities to the customer experience.” That, in turn, frees them to develop a relationship with the end user and to deliver an optimal passenger experience.

Brian Cobb, CVG

Brian Cobb has been chief innovation officer at CVG since January 2018 

Ensuring employee buy-in

Cobb acknowledges the challenges in presenting new technology to would-be users. He admits that CVG hasn’t always got it right: “We have failed on some of our adoption [of innovations]. We found the solution. We took it to the business unit, we handed it over and we stepped away. And the failure was that we didn't integrate the business unit far earlier on.”

According to Cobb, ensuring effective adoption of a new solution or piece of kit involves ‘the art of storytelling’. He and his team need to ensure that everyone involved is clear about the benefits to them of each piece of innovation. CVG’s communications team has worked hard to really understand the audience and how best to communicate with them, in particular where technology and technological language are concerned. Even the methods of communication come under scrutiny – should this innovation be communicated as a blog post or a social media message? Is a degree of PR required?

Cobb explained that he has a fondness for housekeeping at CVG and all the technologies the staff harness on a daily basis. One of the first solutions deployed at the airport was for the housekeeping team, but, he admitted: “It did not go well”.

TaskWatch in use at CVG

A member of the CVG housekeeping team using a TaskWatch

The airport introduced wearable solutions for housekeeping staff – for example, smartwatches that alerted them to a restroom that required immediate cleaning. The technology was ready, but the deployment was lacking. The airport’s Wi-Fi simply couldn’t cope with the additional usage. And the ramifications were not merely technological. As Cobb explained: “Not only did we set up our housekeepers for failure on this new device, but they immediately dismissed it, saying ‘Why should I be bothered [with this]?’”

CVG learned from its mistake. For two years during the coronavirus pandemic a fleet of autonomous tugs could be seen driving around aircraft and personnel in live operation. As Cobb explained: “The interest there was socialisation. We knew we would have customers looking out of the window at a driverless vehicle and that they would start getting used to the idea.”

Innovation for innovation’s sake is a luxury few businesses can afford. There needs to be potential for revenue generation. For Cobb, much of this comes down to really understanding airport users. Is this traveller passing through CVG on business, with a young family or with an elderly parent? What variables does the airport need to be sensitive to, and how can it meet specific traveller needs?

Cobb is keen to use the enormous amounts of data generated during daily operations at CVG, not least for innovating jointly with airline customers – for instance, by helping them stay abreast of security wait times, traffic conditions, etc: “If we can expand that data and really curate a better experience for our mutual consumer, we can generate more revenue together.”

CVG entrance

Cincinnati/ Northern Kentucky International is one of the fastest growing airports in the United States

Collaboration is key

Partners see CVG as more than an airport or an aviation-centric business, describing it as “a city within a city’. The airport has everything from its own police and fire services to stormwater treatment facilities. Cobb calls it an economic engine, adding: “There's just this incredible ecosystem, with no lack of R&D opportunities.”

Collaboration is key and CVG is known for its strong links with universities. This began with the realisation that the airport and its team were dealing with – or hoping to develop – technology they didn’t understand. CVG approached universities and the ensuing relationships ”just took off like rockets”. There are academic as well as business benefits, with the airport providing the ideal backdrop for university R&D.

The first such collaboration was with Ohio’s Miami University and involves the management and operation of Miami University Airport (OXD). CVG has not only helped re-establish OXD as a general aviation facility, but has worked with the university on R&D, which in turn opened the door to working with other academic institutions. The airport now has memoranda of understanding with six universities.

Piaggio Gita robot at CVG

A Piaggio following robot with CVG branding

Cobb could see the advantages of a strong relationship between CVG and local education, but he could also see that the students involved were taking their learning and experience and returning home: “We prefer that not to happen. We hypothesised about how fantastic it would be if a start-up found its way here, built a book of business, hired local people and just become this wild success.”

One such company has been and gone, thanks to the Silicon Valley Bank collapse, but another collaboration is underway. Other companies are also showing interest in moving at least part of their operation to the US Midwest, drawn by its relative affordability, in terms of both living and manufacturing, and its access to talent.


Local heroes

Cobb sees CVG as the heart of the community and, as such, he is keen to work with local organisations on a long-term basis. When the airport lost its hub status, Cobb explained, it was harder to engineer collaborations with industry leaders. This led it to the local start-up market – not only could start-ups deliver solutions, but the move gave CVG access to a new business ecosystem, where it quickly gained a reputation as a poster child for undertaking proof of concepts.

Today, Cobb noted, there is a need for caution. In the face of rapid growth, the airport must avoid becoming a victim of its own success. This is perhaps most evident in CVG’s cargo operation. Cobb is conscious of the environmental sensitivities around airports and is adamant that increased air cargo should not lead to bottlenecks on the roads.

He is also aware of the need for grid stability, and the potential for airport campuses to help stabilise it and even create micro grid environments.

Another idea is to host a data centre at the airport, then use the heat generated for CVG’s HVAC systems. As Cobb told Airports International, high levels of security on the airport campus make it an ideal site for something as sensitive as a data centre, an illustration of what he refers to as ‘coincidental collisions’. Another such example is CVG’s collaboration with The Cincinnati Museum Center. Large-scale renovation of the museum led to the temporary relocation of several of its treasures to the airport, not least a massive glassfibre skeleton of a mastodon. As Cobb points out, the airport has the space, the security and the optimal air condition for these sort of displays.


Avidbot at CVG

An Avidbot floor-cleaning robot at CVG

Pandemic developments

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in an increased push towards automation at CVG. For instance, the airport teamed up with Italy’s The Piaggio Group to trial a ‘following robot’, a droid-type machine used to carry iPads for ASQ surveys. Piaggio developed this particular technology not to replace humans, but to ‘empower’ them. The idea was ultimately to pave the way for digital, contactless solutions such as concierge services or assistance with luggage.

The next stage in CVG’s robot journey was the introduction in 2021 of a fleet of Ottobots, fully autonomous delivery robots for food and retail. Developed by California-based Ottonomy, the robots delivered items from Paradies Lagardère outlets to locations of passengers’ choosing throughout the airport’s Concourse B. According to Ottonomy, this was the first autonomous robotic delivery of food, beverage and lifestyle products in an airport environment.

Aurrigo Dolly Tug

A rendering of the Aurrigo Auto Dolly Tug, which began trials at CVG in January 2024

Looking ahead, Cobb believes it is crucial to revisit automation and ensure that it is not just accessible, but potentially beneficial, to less physically able passengers. He cites the challenges of dragging a carry-on case across the airport’s acres of carpeted flooring and suggests that robots could make a world of difference not only for passengers who find moving around the airport physically challenging, but also travellers with other demands on their time and energy, for instance a single parent with children. Having food delivered to the gate could make all the difference to them and how they perceive the airport experience.

The Ottobot is now in its second iteration at CVG and Cobb is looking beyond the initial deployment. He mentions wheelchair-bound travellers and their inability to enjoy the airport’s amenities: “There’s a whole audience sector – the ageing population, [those suffering from] obesity and so on. How do we meet the needs of folks that do not or cannot leave the gate?”

F&B robots delivering to gates is one way of engaging with travellers reluctant to budge from the gate while awaiting departure, a hesitance that negatively affects not only the passenger experience, but valuable non-aeronautical revenue: “It's absolutely clear in the US that we're losing on the retail front, frankly, based on the security experience. Domestic customers rush to the airport, get through security, rush to their gate, establish a level of comfort, and then just hover around the gate. They’re not really spending in our concourses, so we're losing out on revenue.”

Ottonomy food delivery bot

An Ottobot food delivery robot on duty at CVG

A source of pride

Asked what CVG innovation he is most proud of, Cobb mentions Enterprise Awareness and Situational Exceptions (EASE). Developed by the airport, but now commercially available, EASE is a data-integration platform for real-time operational responses, enabling users to collect key data insights and better predict customer behaviour.

Innovation at CVG began at the security checkpoint, with the development of a Bluetooth sniffer programme, the science subsequently validated by Purdue University. The programme was expanded to tackle security delays and the need to load balance CVG’s security checkpoint, which is physically constrained. Cobb explained: “In that room were a couple of individuals that worked at our airport Operations Control Center, looking at the security monitors, alarms, 911, dispatchers and so on. And the conversation just continued to morph until we asked ‘What if we continued to create ‘a single pane of glass’ that pulled all of this data into one central site?’”

The end result was EASE. As an airport, CVG is not permitted to sell products, so it licensed the patented software to a partner. The product is currently being marketed to other US airports and further afield. EASE has also been pitched to the TSA.


A mock-up of CVG’s EASE solution in use

What next?

Looking ahead, regional air mobility is very much at the forefront of CVG’s plans. The airport is part of NASA’s Ohio Space Grant Consortium (OSGC), with the top five space OEMs already present in Ohio, working towards FAA certification. CVG is part of that collaboration, offering Oxford for trials and committing to providing Class B airspace for demonstration flights. The project, Cobb said, is very much a case of ‘it takes a village’: “It's not just about that aircraft. It's about the ground service operation. What does the whole ecosystem look like? How do we support that mission?”

This development of regional air mobility in Ohio feeds into another of Cobb’s priorities: supporting individuals from rural communities into a large ecosystem like CVG, and then all the way into regional air mobility.

Aircraft at CVG

In 2022, CVG had a $9.3bn annual economic impact  on the Cincinnati region and beyond

Sharing is caring

CVG is committed to creating technology, but not necessarily keeping the results for itself, Cobb stressed. One such example is security: a passenger departing from CVG may face a 15-minute wait at the security checkpoint, but twice as long at the airport they are returning from, negatively affecting the overall passenger experience. Cobb admits that achieving consistency across the sector may be a lofty goal, but noted that CVG aims to address this by working with the TSA. As he told Airports International: “How can we collectively work together to make sure that we're producing a consistent product? And if we can do that effectively, then can we copy and share it? How wonderful would it be if we could consistently produce a solution in other locations?"

Beyond aviation

Asked what non-aviation sectors he considers innovative, Cobb is quick to point to healthcare, not least its increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) and biometrics. This is another illustration of what he refers to as ‘coincidental collisions’, where technology developed for airports is equally useful in a healthcare context and vice versa, and where learning from one sector can have an unexpected impact on the other. One such example, Cobb said, is the mechanical heart. So effective did the device prove that newly confident recipients began travelling again, which was where complications arose, as this lifesaving piece of equipment looks like an explosive device when viewed through an airport security scanner. The situation came to a head when a would-be passenger found themselves taken off to an interrogation room, faced with the very real possibility that the device would be disconnected, resulting in their death. This, Cobb said, is where training comes into play. CVG is working with the TSA to ensure its officers understand the medical implants they may encounter: “Our local TSA is absolutely phenomenal, and they're working to spread this [awareness] across the US.”

Knowledge like this can help ensure those with special needs or sensitivities continue to travel by air. As Cobb points out, as soon as someone has had a bad experience “they just stop travelling. It's lost revenue. It's lost experiences.” And that is something he is determined to tackle.


CVG facade

CVG was one of eight airports in the world inducted into the ACI World director general’s Roll of Excellence in 2024