Robots in Action: Airport Happily Introduces new Ottobots

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Ottobot robot, order in transit
Ottobot robot in transit at Cincinnati Airport.

Robots are Coming to an Airport Near You…Soon!

By Samantha Butts

Airport Robots
Traveling With Robots

During Thanksgiving weekend, 2021, the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) introduced two new employees — autonomous delivery robots or Ottobots.

It’s just the beginning of a new chapter in machines that do things humans once did, and it’s taking off.

Ottobots are fully autonomous robots developed by Ottonomy Inc. that deliver food, beverages, and lifestyle products throughout the airport.

The robots are equipped with 3D laser scanners, seven cameras, and safety sensors. They can travel in both indoor and outdoor environments.

“At CVG, we are redefining the travel experience by combining talent and tech to deliver innovative solutions,” said Candace McGraw, chief executive officer, CVG Airport. “We’ve built a culture of innovation at the airport and are excited to partner with Ottonomy to test this technology in a live, airport environment to advance the knowledge and expertise.”

Ottonomy Web App Menu
Ottonomy Web App Menu

Robots with Situational Awareness

Using their sensors the Ottobots have situational awareness allowing them to understand their environment and avoid threats while navigating, such as children and people lying down.

The robots also have behavior-based contextual navigation with mapping and localization. This allows the robot to navigate in crowded areas like an airport.

Deliveries are ordered with the web app, orderatcvg.com. Customers can scan a QR code found throughout the airport. Once on the website, they can select the items they want and place their order. After placing their order, customers will receive updates on their mobile devices.

Once orders are ready they are placed inside one of the Ottobot’s compartments. Each Ottobot has two compartments and each order takes up one compartment. Meaning there can be four deliveries at any point in time.

Once the Ottobots have the order in their compartment they navigate their way through the airport and around obstacles until they get to their destination. When the Ottobot arrives, the customer receives a notification. The customer can then scan the QR code on the top of the Ottobot to access their items.

What’s on the menu?

The web app takes you straight to the CVG menu. There you can find a variety of drinks, snacks, and sandwiches to order before your flight. They offer water, sodas, and Red Bull. For snacks, they have chocolate and fruit candy, bagged chips, pretzels, and nuts.

However, you can also order non-food items. The menu also includes various phone chargers and wall units, as well as Blue Tooth and wired earbuds. Customers can also purchase medication, such as Advil and Tylenol.

OrderInput
Order Input

Why do we need autonomous robots?

Ottobots have proven to be a way to combat the growing labor shortage across the country. With staffing limited and customer expectations high, the robots are able to satisfy customers’ needs.

Order Pick up Ottobot
Order Pick up Ottobot

Ritukar Vijay, Co-Founder and CEO of Ottonomy Inc, says, “the overall mission of our Ottonomy is around augmenting additional capabilities to the limited staff which is in retail and restaurants right now.”

The robots are also cost and operationally efficient. Real people can be expensive to hire and can get sick with little notice. Airports also require background checks for their employees.

Not only are the Ottobots helpful for the businesses in the airport, but they make things easier for airport visitors. People are often in a hurry.

When using Ottobots, customers do not have to wait in any long lines and fear missing their flight. Customers can wait at their departure gate and get their food orders delivered right to them.

“I think it’s amazing to see how regular people are embracing technology,” Vijay says.

The Ottobots can also be useful in limiting face-to-face contact with employees and other patrons waiting in line.

How have people responded?

Since their rollout in November last year, the feedback has been mostly positive. Vijay says people have been “very excited when the robots are navigating among the crowds and it effectively navigates within them.”

People are intrigued by the Ottobots and find it very different from their usual airport experience. Kids are especially excited to see the robots passing by them. So far, people have not felt unsafe when robots are near them.

The only prominent issues they have faced are the additional training for staff to get used to working with robots. There has been a small learning curve for working with the Ottobots, but the staff is adjusting well.

DeliveryPickup
Delivery Pickup

In November and December 2020, Ottonomy conducted a brief study to test the Ottobots. The company took feedback from about 20 to 25 people. Through this, they found ways to enhance customer experience while at the airport using Ottobots.

Ottonomy used the study to determine what the Ottobots needed to do and how to run them smoothly throughout the airport so the robots did not startle customers.

Ottonomy Inc.

Ottonomy Inc. started in the midst of the pandemic but since its launch, the company has flourished according to Vijay.

During its 13 months in existence, Ottonomy has been recognized for its success. Robotics Business Review named Ottonomy in the top 50 most innovative robotics companies worldwide in 2021.

Vijay attributes this recognition to “the unique market potential which [they] have been identified for, bringing in autonomy in public places, specifically at airports.”

In 2021, Ottonomy won the Sustainability Product of the Year Award from the Business Intelligence Group. The Ottobots are completely electric and are set to reduce carbon emissions.

What’s next for Ottonomy?

Ottonomy hopes to continue to grow its company across the country. For CVG, Vijay hopes to continue monitoring the Ottobots. Using each day as a way to learn and improve his company’s product. If there is sufficient demand, more Ottobots could be introduced to CVG.

In 2022, Ottonomy hopes to introduce its Ottobots to more airports in the country. They are working toward adding them in a couple of airports in Texas, California, and the East Coast.

OrderAtCVG
Order at CVG

The company is also exploring outside of airports. Since the Ottobots are equipped for indoor and outdoor environments, Vijay says they are doing pilots with curbside deliveries.

He says this is going to “change the drive-thru experience for a customer.” A customer would be able to order online, park outside, and have their food delivered by an Ottobot.

Wired Magazine writes, “robots have been taking on new jobs in recent years as the technology becomes more capable as well as easier and cheaper to deploy.” Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation, told Wired that rising demand for automation is driving interest in robotics as a service.

Over the next couple of years, we will likely see more and more robots in our everyday lives. These Ottobots are just the beginning.