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We Are The Robots: The Automated Future Of Inflight Service?

Pepper the Inflight Service Bot was debuted last week at the SF Disrupt Hackathon, and already she is trying to steal my job. A team of experienced engineers programmed the humanoid robot not just to serve in smooth air and rough, but converse in any language, check passengers in for flights, and provide information such as connecting flight status. Pepper will most likely never actually see 35,000 feet, even though the team plans to continue work on the robot, but her creation highlights an interesting trend toward the desire to automate in-flight service.

Sell GmbH, manufacturer of aircraft galley equipment, filed for a very interesting patent last year. The proposal is for an under-the-floor conveyor belt meal delivery system, which would eliminate trolleys and flight attendants from blocking the aisles during service. It’s been called an Automat of the sky, and that does sound like a lot of fun to play with. According to the patent:

It is understood that this conveyor can transport or deliver items or goods but also remove them according to the present invention. In this instance, this preferably relates to food in general. Other objects, for example, magazines or the like can also be individually requested or delivered by the present conveyor.
Even I would buy some kind of overpriced Hot Pocket or duty-free lipgloss set just so I could see the little machine pop up at my seat. The nice side benefit of this machine would be extra legroom, as it would require space to reach individual passengers at their seat. As incredible as it sounds, this invention was actually inspired by a much earlier patent, filed in 1965 by Martin Limanoff. The design is very similar, with the machine only running on a monorail in the aisle instead of reaching individual seats.
Another recent in-flight innovation – and this one seems a lot more likely to take off (sorry) – is the SkyTender robotic bartending system. The SkyTender is a trolley-mounted, RFID-based soda fountain which can dispense a variety of hot and cold drinks, as well as wine and mixed cocktails, with minimal waste and a lot fewer trips to the galley to replace items that run out. The setup and maintenance on the SkyTender seems relatively simple, with crews needing only to exchange syrup boxes on occasion. Its test flight, from Cologne to Palma, Majorca in December 2012 went without a hitch, with both crew and passengers pleased. It performed so well that a sister product was introduced earlier this year, a galley insert called SkyDrinx, which would serve the additional function of filtering the on-board drinking water supply. The environmental impact of these products would be enormous, as not only would the lighter weight of the cart burn less fuel (saving money in the process), but reduce waste, as trash carts are often overflowing with cans and bottles by the end of even a short flight. The lighter-weight SkyTender would also minimize physical strain on crews who currently drag heavy carts up the aisles against gravity to do the beverage service.

But what happens when these products malfunction?
Unlike safety equipment, flights can take off without most convenience items, however irritating it may be. Should the Skytender malfunction, for instance, would passengers not have beverages – including water – available? As it is now, when we have an in-flight entertainment system failure, even minor, my service is thrown into chaos – first, because I am attempting to reset the system; second, because I am fielding constant questions and complaints as to why the system isn’t working properly. One could only assume what a mess on-board service would be should we become overly reliant on technology, and the amount of aggravation of attempting to fix these problems in the air – and trying to enact a Plan B – might be something to consider from both a passenger and crew member standpoint.
Quantum Of The Seas, the first “smartship” from Royal Caribbean, learned that lesson the hard way on its maiden voyage from New York to Southampton in late 2014. The cruise ship featured, among other hi-tech amenities, robot bartenders whose bionic arms were meant to mix drinks in a minute. Instead, passengers were left waiting twenty. Other technological applications were slow or failed outright, leaving some passengers less than pleased. While the cruise was not called a complete failure, certainly contingency plans had to be enacted and apologies issued.
The more we move away from basic human interaction, the more we are looking at potential problems and difficult service when these systems fail – and they all do at some point. Airlines should certainly strive to keep up with modern technology, but also keep in mind its limitations. That said, I do look at all this with cautious optimism. I, for one, welcome our robot overlords. Just as long as they keep me on the payroll.
[Photo: TechCrunch]
Comments are Closed.
sdsearch September 20, 2016

Wait a second, what savings is this supposed to accomplish? The primary job of flight atendandants is not serving anybody, it's safety. Many airlines are already in the habit of only putting as many flight attendants on a plane type as the number of seats on that plane dictates. (There're been stories of some airlines in the past taking out one row of seats so they would be able to go from 4 to 3 flight attendants needed per flight.) So if the flight attendants have to be on the plane anyhow for safety reasons, what's the cost savings of duplicating what they do effective "in their spare time" (from their primary function of safety)? The only case would be in places with big premium sections where the number of flight attendants needed to support premium cabin passenger may be greater than the number of flight attendants needed for safety. (But on many transoceanic flights i've been on, they simply "borrow" some flight attendants from coach during premium cabin meal times, and vice versa.) So are airline going to install these things to add more service than the minimum number of flight attendants (as determine by safety factors) could provide? Will the answer to that depends on whether they can monetize that extra service? And how much is this going to weigh? SInce it has to be in addition to the flight attendants (if it cannot perform all safety functions), it sounds like it just adds to the weight of the plane. And we all know that airlines hate adding weight to a plane.

cynosura September 20, 2016

Will they be any more dependable than the entertainment systems or the NOGO wireless service? I personally prefer a human, no matter how angry or burnt out they are.

djjaguar64 September 20, 2016

But wait a minute I thought all North American airlines already have robots or robotic types serving passengers, so this is not new!