In the years before smartphones, self-driving cars and virtual reality headsets, one of the first major technological advances U.S. households got their hands on was, of course, the Roomba. The roundish dust-sucking robots were surely a sign of the future way back in 2002, but by now the novelty of an autonomous vacuum has almost all but lost its luster. Now, the same technology that finally let cats ride robots has moved on to perform bigger and better tasks: hauling luggage.
DFW International Airport is now the temporary home to the first system of baggage-handling robots, known as FLEET. When the baggage robots are in action, passengers take their luggage to self-bag drops, which deposit their luggage onto one of the new robots, which then deliver bags to the baggage belt. This system, which was developed by the Netherlands-based logistic automation company Vanderlande, is still in the testing phase, according to Khaled Naja, DFW Airport’s executive vice president of infrastructure and development.
"DFW is testing the process to see how we might provide our customers with a more seamless journey using the award-winning technology within our current baggage infrastructure, and integrating automation for efficiency," Naja said in a news release. "As we go through the pilot program, DFW will evaluate this new technology and assess potential applications of robots and autonomous vehicles at different points within the airport."
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FLEET was first implemented at Rotterdam The Hague Airport in 2018 and can handle nearly 450 bags per hour, though it doesn’t appear that these robots will be replacing humans wholesale any time soon. According to a Facebook post (on a video of FLEET in action at DFW) from Gary Rhan, an ambassador volunteer for DFW Airport, human employees are still stationed at the self-bag drop locations to help people use the new system. And considering the growth DFW Airport is currently undergoing after word of a new terminal was announced May 20, there is likely to be even more need for human employees at DFW than ever.
“Rest assured that as we continue to grow, team members with a similar job function are still a great asset to the airport and are being utilized in other parts of the workforce,” reads a Facebook comment from DFW Airport, in response to the possibility of human jobs being outsourced to any future robots the airport brings on. “As we continue to grow our year over year passenger numbers, so will the on-airport employees to accommodate those customers.”
The announcement of FLEET’s pilot program at the fourth-busiest airport in the world, is, if nothing else, certainly a momentous occasion for the robots themselves. No longer relegated to just automobile plants and the back pages of SkyMall, robots are finally stepping out of the shadows, whirring and wheeling in public for all to see. It’s still not known if they’ll prove to be practical for DFW Airport, but it’s always cool to see robots doing things. Let’s hope someone gets a cat to ride on one of these.