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Fights of fancy

Technology’s ever-widening reach continues to drive rapid – and surprising – changes in the world around us. A host of new capabilities such as robotics, artificial intelligence and augmented reality are already here, and seem set to disrupt nearly every aspect of daily life, including – and perhaps especially – travel.

Travel industry trade shows are often where we are introduced to the practical applications of the latest technological developments. One such recent event was Future Travel Experience Asia EXPO 2016, held in October in Singapore. At events like these we can discover advances and innovations – from biometric scanning to computer visualization to the effective use of big data – that may change the way we fly in the near and distant future.

Concept Cabin

Airbus has put a fair amount of time into researching future tech developments for the aviation sector. Its The Future by Airbus report published back in 2010 looks at how the industry may look in the year 2050.

A number of the leaps forward in that report pertain to making air travel more eco-friendly; however the aircraft manufacturer’s “Concept Cabin” highlights just how radically different the passenger experience could become three decades hence. Perhaps most notable is the manufacturer’s notion that traditional class tiers could one day be replaced by zones based on individual travelers’ interests, ranging from having business meetings with people from around the world to areas offering relaxation and activities.

The Vitalising Zone, for instance, would include seats surrounded by a bionic structure with membranes that could turn transparent at the wave of a hand, offering panoramic views outside the aircraft. In the Interaction Zone, touch-sensitive panels could scan and download information about individual passengers, offering them a bespoke experience ranging from virtual reality golf, tennis and baseball to interactive virtual shopping.

Robotic Assistance

In October, SITA Labs – the technology research arm of IT firm SITA – toured its autonomous, self-propelled baggage robot in Singapore and Hong Kong. Named Leo after the famed Renaissance-era inventor Leonardo Da Vinci, the automaton represents the company’s look into the future of baggage handling for commercial flights.

Leo is designed to check in luggage, print baggage tags and transport two suitcases at a time. Passengers use the robot’s “Scan&fly” function to drop luggage into compartments on the robot that close once bags are tagged and loaded, and can only be reopened by the operator unloading the baggage in the airport. Thanks to its in-built obstacle-avoidance technology, the robot can function in high-traffic areas, such as an airport, and if it gains traction, could be a way to collect, check in, transport and load luggage without involvement from any human other than the passenger. Since the bag drop is done outside, it wouldn’t even have to enter the terminal building.

Aside from its tour in Singapore and Hong Kong, Leo has also undergone trial runs at Geneva Airport where travelers checked in their bags using the robot.

Meanwhile, in February 2016, Japan Airlines began trials of a new android guide at Tokyo Haneda International Airport, offering travelers flight information such as schedules, destination and weather updates. Known as Nao, the robot features voice-recognition software and is able to communicate in Japanese, Chinese and English.;

Baggage Tracking

Luggage brand Rimowa recently launched what it claims is the first digital check-in solution for luggage, the Rimowa Electronic Tag. Built into the luggage, the tag allows travelers to check in their luggage remotely using an app on their smartphone and drop it off at the airport. Rimowa’s app will communicate with airlines’ own apps to send flight information directly to the bag via Bluetooth, which can be viewed using the in-built E-ink display.

Lufthansa was the first airline partner to adopt the technology, with the service up and running at Munich and Frankfurt airports. However, EVA Air also recently announced they would be adopting the technology, with other industry players currently testing the solution.

Chip Scanner

Scandinavian airline SAS is investigating a number of interesting new innovations. Among the developments, fully interactive and visual digital walls in its lounges to provide up-to-date flight information and allow travelers to visually explore each individual flight’s cabin layout in three dimensions; the first of its walls is set to launch this year at the airline’s new Oslo lounge.

The airline has also recently given iPads to all crew members that use data about customers’ previous trips to improve service on subsequent journeys. The carrier’s innovation lab has also been looking into a near-field communication (NFC) ring with passenger information that can be swiped when boarding the aircraft.

But easily its most “out there” concept is using a programmable chip inserted into a person’s hand. In much the same way one would scan a travel card for use on public transport, the chip would eliminate the need for any physical documentation or devices whatsoever. “This is not only on the concept drawing board, it is a reality,” said Eivind Roald, SAS’s executive vice president commercial at a media briefing in Hong Kong. “Whether this will be the future or not, I don’t know, but it shows something about what we are doing in our innovation labs.”

Admittedly such an “invasive” and potentially controversial innovation would likely take a fair amount of time to gain meaningful traction among travelers. SAS has yet to roll out even a scan-able watch, let alone a chip embedded under the skin, so it’s probably safe to say this won’t be an innovation we’ll see coming to the market in the immediate future.

Avionics and IT company Rockwell Collins, meanwhile, announced back in March 2015 that it was developing a tool that combined its ARINC vMUSE and ARINC Veripax technology with its Atkins Identity Management platform to enable scanning using travelers’ biometrics. Facial recognition, as well as fingerprint and iris scanning technologies could match a person’s biometrics with their passport and boarding pass information, enabling travelers to check in more efficiently and board by themselves.;

Augmented Reality

When the augmented reality app Pokémon Go launched last year, its popularity took the world by storm. While the vast gatherings of people playing the game in public have since largely disappeared, it showed the great potential AR technology has to capture the public’s interest.

Recently, tech giant Google teamed up with San Jose International Airport to test a new augmented reality technology platform called Tango, which uses computer vision to enable devices to understand their surroundings without the need for technology such as GPS. This allows the use of location-based AR apps that can be accurate to within about a centimeter, including a custom SJC app that has since been tested by members of Google’s Project Tango team and Aisle411, the company that developed the app, at the airport’s Terminal B.

Meanwhile, British Airways demo’d the app earlier this summer during the launch of its direct San Jose-London Heathrow route, enabling passengers to use the app for wayfinding, viewing augmented reality digital billboards with destination information and searching for F&B options based on their location and time availability. Floating 3D images were also visible when using the app, including a surreal 3D shark swimming around outside the airport’s Shark Cage restaurant.