How Robots Can Assist Travelers in Airports and Hotels

  • 01 of 05

    Robots Are Part of the Technology Revolution in Travel

    Female robot who works in Tokyo
    Junco Chihira, a humanoid robot made by Toshiba, dressed for Halloween in the Tokyo visitors' center where she answers questions. ©Toshiba

    For years travel insiders have been predicting that advances in computing and artificial intelligence will soon usher in a new level of travel technology: walking, talking, computer-brained mechanical helpers, also known as robots.

    And they're here. Customer-service robots have been invented, and they're on their way to an airport, train station, mall, or information desk near you.

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  • 02 of 05

    How Robots Think and What They Can Do

    This hotel robot delivers room service in Silicon Valley
    Shades of R2-D2! Guests at Aloft Hotels in Silicon Valley can summon "Botlr" for room service. ©Aloft Hotels

    Robots can handle data and communicate in various languages. They never forget anything and don't need coffee breaks or praise from the boss.

    Robots are mobile computers that can:

    • Sense: Sensor feedback devices gather information about the robot's environment and stimuli
    • Think: The robot draws conclusions based on pre-programmed data and the new information from its sensors (including cues about people)
    • Act: Sensing and thinking result in actions such as smiling or pointing to a screen or monitor
    • (these robots are termed "socially perceptive and interactive")
    • Move: Robots' construction allows them to move certain "body" parts and sometimes to ambulate or roll

    A robot that is remotely controlled by a human or remote station is called animatronic.

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  • 03 of 05

    How Robots Can Help Travelers

    Airport robot who assists KLM passengers
    Spencer, KLM's passenger-assistant robot at Schiphol Airport. His name comes from “Social situation‐aware PErceptioN and action for CognitivE Robots". ©KLM

    Robots stay calm, and they're very good at giving straightforward, up-to-date answers to questions of the "where is?" or "when is?" variety. 

    Robots will increasingly be put to work in locations where information is essential, yet may be scarce or ever-changing. They're especially useful in places where customers are numerous and in a rush, such as airports and transportation hubs, information desks, shopping malls, arenas, casinos.

    How Do Humanoid Robots Beat Human or App Assistance?

    This is the question on people's minds: aside from their novelty, will robots truly improve our travel experience? After all, we can now get up-to-date travel data right on our smartphone screens.

    Robots are at their best in situations where information is changing rapidly, people are full of questions, and need help getting somewhere fast. Robots can get you there, while human staffers cannot leave their stations. Nor can a phone tell you how to navigate the airport labyrinth.

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  • 04 of 05

    Will Robot Assistants Be Accepted by Travelers?

    Closeup of KLM's airport robot, Spencer
    Lost in Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport? Spencer is there to help. ©KLM

    Travelzoo, an early player in online travel planning, conducted a study of over 6,000 travelers in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. The subject: the future of travel.

    Four out of five respondents expected robots to play a major part in their lives by 2020 -- and considered this a good thing. A majority of subjects said they'd be comfortable interacting with robots when they travel—and respondents from Brazil and China were most enthusiastic about the major changes in the industry.

    In fact, Travelzoo Europe's president, Richard Singer, is very optimistic about robots. “Right now is a very exciting moment in the history of the travel industry," he said. "Groundbreaking technology is revolutionizing what is possible (in) customer service, entertainment, and personalization. (We will) see the tangible benefits heading our way in the very near future.” KLM's René de Groot agrees. "KLM believes that robotics will play an increasingly important role in aviation in the coming years," he said. 

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  • 05 of 05

    Robots Currently in Use for Customer Service and Travel

    Female robot in Tokyo, Japan
    Aico Chihira, a robot made by Toshiba, help customers in a Tokyo shopping mall. ©Toshiba

    The first series of robots designed to help provide customer assistance and travel information has been launched in Japan. 

    Junco Chihira is a robot developed by Toshiba in Japan. Toshiba says one of its goals is to pioneer "human-looking robot technology." Junco looks pretty human, right? So far, the company's engineers have created three examples of what Toshiba calls "communication androids." 

    Toshiba's Female Robots

    • Number in Family: 3
    • Names: Aico Chihira, Junco Chihira, and Kanae Chihira
    • Birthplace: Tokyo, Japan, in the labs of Toshiba Corporation
    • Age: Ageless, but Aico and Junco are designed to appear and sound 26, and Kanae's "age" is 32
    • Height: 5'5"
    • Complexion: Flawless silicone skin
    • Languages spoken: So far, the Chihira family is conversant in Japanese, Mandarin, English, and Sign Language
    • American or British English: British
    • Do they sleep? Sort of: like a computer, their systems go into sleep mode to save energy
    • Do they have opinions? They can draw conclusions based on data and what their sensors tell them. 

    Spencer, the Robot Assistant at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam

    Over seventy per cent of KLM passengers transfer at Schiphol Airport. And you know what it's like when you're rushing to find your gate in an unfamiliar airport. This is where Spencer -- KLM's passenger-assistant airport robot-- comes in.

    "Every day, some passengers can miss their connecting flight due to delays, language barriers or because they lose their way," says KLM Chief Operating Officer René de Groot. 

    Spencer has all the newest airport info, and stays calm in tense situations. ( Spencer tells passengers their flight times, when their boarding gate is closing, and where it is. Or, if passengers ask, Spencer escorts them to the gate, keeping up with their pace -- something a phone app can't do. His screen continues to report critical new information like how much time it will take to walk there, the latest boarding time, and other key data.  

    Spencer's development was co-funded by KLM and by the European Commission's 7th Framework Programme, a tech project with a budget of 50 billion Euros. 

    An engineer at the lab called Spencer  "the first socially‐aware robot that has ever been deployed at an airport," and explained what makes the robot unique. "It can deal with social situations between people. It can ’see' and analyze people nearby with its sensors. It reasons about possible social relations between people like whether they are a family or group. It also learns about and then complies with social rules and acts in a human‐friendly way."

    Robots Do Room Service in Silicon Valley Hotels

    Robots are also good acting as couriers and waiters in hotels. Two Aloft hotels, Aloft Cupertino and Aloft Silicon Valley, employ a tireless room-service robot who delivers room service (seen on the previous slide).

    He's named Botlr, and he's stationed at the front desk.The three-foot-tall assistant communicates via a text screen, rolls to and into the elevator, and delivers requested amenities to your room. Botlr does not accept tips, but requests that you Tweet about him.

    Is robot room service better than human room service? For one thing, Botlr doesn't dawdle. For another, he doesn't care if you're wearing a towel.

    Botlr is on call at the Aloft Cupertino and Aloft Silicon Valley hotels. He is stationed at the front desk and is summoned by guests to deliver items such as a printed boarding pass or a softer pillow. Botlr navigates the hotel expertly and operates the elevator himself. Once he arrives at the room, it calls the guest' to alert its arrival. 

    The Robot Hotel in Japan

    Robots augment the human staff at Henn-na Hotel in Japan, which opened in 2015. The robot serve as front-desk clerks, luggage porters, and housekeepers. Maybe it's a coincidence, but the hotel is set inside a theme park.