Robotic technology has had a profound impact on the aerospace industry and airports are no exception. With the constant flow of passengers and the need for efficient operations, airports have embraced robotics to streamline processes, enhance security, and improve customer experience.


Safe as houses

One prominent area where robotics are deployed is airport security screening. Companies such as Smiths Detection and Secom have developed advanced robotic systems that enhance the efficiency and accuracy of baggage and passenger screening. These robots use sophisticated sensors and algorithms to detect prohibited items, reducing the need for manual inspection and minimising security risks. By automating the screening process, airports can handle larger volumes of passengers while maintaining stringent security standards. Smiths Detection’s iCMORE Prohibited Items uses artificial intelligence-based algorithms to automatically detect items determined to be a security risk at airport security checkpoints, such as firearms, knives, scissors, axes, grenades, blasting caps, ammunition and blunt objects.

Munich Airport evoBOT

The evoBOT’s gripper arms means it can take on a wide range of tasks

The algorithms, if deployed more widely, could lead to a more automated screening process which would enable ‘alarm-only’ viewing of X-ray images – a system that has been successfully used in airport hold baggage screening for years, considerably reducing the number of images needing to be viewed manually by an operator. Separately, Secom has developed an autonomous patrolling robot that joins human security teams at Kansai International Airport (KIX) to deliver more efficient security operations. The outdoor patrol robot, known as Secom Robot X2, has a 360° camera and performs security and monitoring operations at Terminal 2 of KIX as well as throughout the airport railway station zones.


Streamlining operations

Robotic systems also play a crucial role in the construction and maintenance of airport infrastructure. Companies such as SITA and construction specialist Mace Group use robots for runway maintenance and even the construction of terminal buildings. Robotic drones equipped with cameras and sensors are used for inspections, enabling engineers to identify potential issues and perform maintenance tasks more efficiently. Furthermore, robotic machines are being employed to assist airport staff in lifting heavy loads and reducing the risk of injuries. At Munich Airport, the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics IML has designed the evoBOT, which is being used in the cargo terminal and on the apron.

The robot has gripper arms and can take on a wide range of tasks, such as handling hazardous goods, transporting parcels, relieving employees during lifting and overhead work, procuring materials or even providing support during the loading and unloading of aircraft. The two-wheeled evoBOT can reach a maximum speed of 60km/h and transport a load of up to 100kg. Its manoeuvrability means the evoBOT can be operated both indoors and outdoors.

“Against the backdrop of rising air freight figures and the challenges of recruiting employees, we are very pleased to be able to take a look into the future with Fraunhofer IML. Into the very near future at that,” said Claudia Weidenbusch, managing director of Cargogate Munich Airport.

A Roboxi runway robot at Stavanger Airport

A Roboxi runway robot at Stavanger Airport (Sola)

Norwegian airport operator Avinor recently announced a partnership with Telia Company – the second largest supplier of mobile services in Norway – to explore how 5G technologies can digitise and streamline airport operations, while making them more sustainable.

One of the projects will trial the use of a 5G-controlled robot to streamline the operation of taxiways and runways. The partners will explore the use of a self-propelled robot equipped with cameras, sensors – and potentially, a movable arm – at Sola and Alta airports. The robot’s main task will be to check the condition of landing lights along the airstrip, as well as detecting and chasing birds, removing foreign objects, detecting cracks in the asphalt and inspecting fences.

At London Heathrow Airport, Mace has employed ‘Dave’, a robotic dog, in a bid to improve efficiency and safety on major construction projects. The team is trialling the robot – developed by Boston Dynamics and equipped with a Trimble X7 scanner to provide 3D laser scans – during the ongoing refurbishment of a 1960s cargo tunnel at Heathrow. The robot dog allows the project team to safely retrieve data from the building site which is then used alongside 3D models and augmented reality to track accuracy and progress on the construction work.

Mark Reynolds, group chairman and chief executive of Mace, said: “The introduction of our new robot colleague, Dave, at Heathrow is a fantastic demonstration of the future of our industry. Robots will never replace people in construction – but this pilot shows how they have the potential to drive greater efficiency, capture records digitally and improve safety and delivery.”

Retail robotics

Similarly, robots are being used in airport retail spaces, improving operational efficiency and enhancing the shopping experience for travellers. Jeeves – a self-driving service robot – is used to sell food and snacks to passengers at Munich Airport. The snackbot, developed by Munich start-up Robotise, offers a selection of chilled soft drinks and snacks that can be purchased via cashless payment methods. A large touchscreen is used to complete the purchase. At Belfast International Airport, SSP Group has trialled six service robots at the Sip & Stone Restaurant and Bar to help servers with their day-to-day tasks, allowing staff more time to focus on customer service. ‘BellaBot’ was used to bring food and drinks from the kitchen while ‘HolaBot’ collected plates and cutlery once customers left their tables.

Richard Lewis, CEO of SSP UK & Ireland, said: “Investing in new technology with a view to improving the customer experience is one of the core tenets of SSP. The nature of our business means we serve a lot of customers, and we need to serve them quickly. These robots will enable our colleagues to spend more time front of house with our customers, ultimately improving their experience at our restaurants.”

Dave the robot dog

Dave the robot dog at work at Heathrow

Airside advantages

The benefits of incorporating robotics into airport operations are manifold. Automation leads to increased efficiency and productivity, allowing airports to handle larger volumes of passengers and cargo. This translates to shorter wait times, faster processing, and improved overall throughput. Earlier this year, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities revealed plans to use a dog-sized robot camouflaged as a coyote or fox to scare off wildlife – including birds – which pose a safety risk to aircraft. The agile Aurora robot, which is capable of climbing rocks, will carry out hourly patrols by the runway at Fairbanks International Airport.

SITA has developed a fully autonomous robot called Leo which was put to use at Mexico City Airport to manage passenger luggage. Leo meets passengers as they arrive at the airport, assists them with check-in and helps to print bag labels before transporting their bags for processing.

Service robots Belfast

Service robots on trial at Belfast International Airport

In 2019, Cranfield University trialled a four-wheeled Vortex Robot that uses suction to manoeuvre around the exterior of an aircraft to inspect it for damage. Structural inspection of aircraft components is currently done manually, making it time-consuming, subject to human error and costly, with aircraft maintenance expenditure usually representing 20% of overall operating costs. Developed as part of the CompInnova project, by Swedish partner, Luleå University of Technology, the Vortex Robot was able to stick to and move around the sides and underbelly of Cranfield’s Boeing 737 during testing.

Changi Airport Group (CAG) and Aurrigo have collaborated to test the latest version of its electric-powered autonomous vehicle, Auto-DollyTug, at the Singapore hub. Auto-DollyTug combines the utility of a baggage tractor and the unit load device (ULD) carrying-capability of an airport dolly, it can rotate in its own length and move directly sideways and slide into tight spaces, enabling the swift delivery of a single ULD even when other GSE equipment is situated close to the aircraft. Professor David Keene, CEO at Aurrigo, explained: “This level of capability has been made possible by designing a vehicle to be electric and autonomous from day one. We have never built a diesel-powered airport vehicle so we don’t have to work around the compromises of a legacy GSE [ground support equipment] vehicle product.”

Munich Airport snackbot

The Munich snackbot was developed by local start-up Robotise 

Keeping it clean

Robotic cleaning is another area that is growing in popularity. Birmingham Airport has installed collaborative robots – dubbed cobots – to work alongside staff by taking on the repetitive task of floor cleaning. Birmingham’s scrubber driers cobots, developed by Industrial Cleaning Equipment (ICE), use 3D side cameras to ensure they provide 100% coverage, and they also charge, drain and refill without human intervention.

“These incredible machines are not only raising the standards, but are also efficiently redeploying labour to carry out other crucial tasks,” an ICE spokesperson said.

The adoption of robotics in airports contributes to cost savings and improved sustainability. By automating repetitive tasks and reducing the reliance on manual labour, airports can lower operating expenses and minimise their environmental footprint. Robotic systems are often more energy-efficient than traditional equipment, leading to reduced energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

Robotics also enable airports to optimise resource utilisation and minimise waste, contributing to a more sustainable aviation industry. Avidbots has developed two robots, Neo and Kas, which are designed to clean high-traffic commercial areas. The company uses artificial intelligence, mapping algorithms and vision sensors to understand operating environments and take action to maximise cleaning productivity while minimising human intervention. Rather than only relying on routes an operator has taught them, a feature of the Avidbots Autonomy – called Advanced Dynamic Planning – allows the robots to make real-time decisions, keeping up with alterations to the environment and adapting when objects, layouts and floor plans change. Neo and Kas’ long battery life and high productivity contribute to more sustainable cleaning. Both robots’ batteries are swappable and rechargeable – and they both have an ECO cleaning mode where they use less water to achieve similar cleaning results.

Aurrigo Auto-DollyTug

The Auto-DollyTug was designed as an autonomous vehicle from day one

“Staff are happy to work alongside Neo and Kas because they can devote their time and energy to other tasks while the robots handle the tiring and repetitive cleaning chores,” an Avidbots spokesperson said. “Pushing or riding a manual scrubber, machines that weigh hundreds of pounds, isn’t easy, and it reduces the time available for teams to fulfil other crucial cleaning tasks throughout the airport. So, that they can get more done – without burning themselves out – is extremely helpful.”

Brian Cobb, chief innovation officer at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG), the first US airport to deploy the Neo floor scrubbing robot, added: “We receive written notes and feedback. People say: ‘We saw the robot. You really care about cleanliness.’ What is heart-warming – to leadership and the individuals responsible for it – is that we are absolutely lauded for our cleanliness. That’s hard to accomplish with the number of people coming through our facility. We’re exceptionally proud of that. The credit really goes to the housekeeping staff and to Neo, working alongside one another.” (Click here for an in-depth interview with Brian Cobb).


Clockwork’s MiNiCURE is an AI-powered solution that uses 3D camera technology

Further reading: The passenger experience

Robotics also improve the passenger experience by offering convenience and personalised services. Whether it’s ordering a coffee from a robotic kiosk or navigating the airport with the help of autonomous robots, travellers benefit from streamlined processes and enhanced customer service. XWELL and Clockwork, developer of the world’s first robot manicure, has introduced fully autonomous express manicures in XpresSpa locations at US airports.

The AI-powered Clockwork MiNiCURE is an express manicure that paints nails precisely, with 3D camera technology taking pictures of each nail, painting them safely, quickly and accurately without human intervention. Travellers select their nail polish, load the cartridge into the machine, and use a touch screen for a self-guided tutorial on the process. Clockwork founder and CEO Renuka Apte said: “We love that we can transform the time wasted waiting for a flight into an efficient, ten-minute beauty service that helps people feel more put together and ready for their trip.”

VINCI Airports in Japan has also introduced robots to improve the passenger experience: those using Kobe Airport can chat with ten travel assistant robots that answer their questions, help them with wayfinding within the terminal and even advise on places to eat. From enhancing security screening and F&B services to improving construction and maintenance processes, robots are transforming the way airports operate. Companies across the globe are investing in robotic technology to streamline operations, enhance safety, and provide better services to passengers. With continued advancements in robotics and AI, the future of airports promises even greater efficiency, security, and convenience for travellers. 

Cloos robot

The majority of Bucher Municipal’s robots are supplied by German company Cloos

Further reading: Robots in manufacturing

Airport equipment supplier Bucher Municipal employs automation within its manufacturing processes for state-of-the-art runway sweepers. The Swiss company says the advanced technology enables it to be “at the forefront of innovation”. Its product line includes the MaxPowa V95t aero high-speed runway and multi-task airport sweeper, which uses special v-formation channels directing debris under the primary suction nozzles for the collection of larger FOD (foreign object debris).

Bucher Municipal recently installed two new 10kW fibre lasers for metal cutting and an automated material handling system for the removal of parts, as well as advanced robotic MIG (metal inert gas) weld cells for the welding of materials used in the assembly of its products. “We use robots for repeatability, to ensure quality, and for structural items which need the absolute quality of the weld,” explained Steve Jones, Bucher Municipal’s component manufacturing manager.

“We tend to try and put complex high-volume parts across these robots. Within our facility we have six robots; they are all dual robots cells, meaning they can run on both sides of the platform and maximise run times.”

Bucher Municipal’s robotic technology can be programmed both on the machines and offline, which offers flexibility during the manufacturing process. The company also manufactures its own fixtures on site, such as tooling to hold the parts in the right place during the production process, and individual parts are designed to suit the needs of the robots. “Whenever the designers make a part, they have to consider how a robot can reach the areas that it needs to weld,” said Jones. “They have to consider how it holds the part together, and how it can perform its task accurately. The robot needs clear access to wherever it is going to weld the parts.”

The majority of Bucher Municipal’s robots are supplied by German company Cloos. “Keeping with the same robot company gives us good support, it means we can get everyone trained through the same facility,” Jones noted. “We have many monitoring devices to keep track of how well the robots are running. Quality can be checked by the office – we can see if the welding is going well on cameras – and we can go back repeatedly and change elements of the welding items to ensure the highest quality.


Robots are increasingly taking over basic airport tasks, freeing staff for more demanding work