The rise of the
South Korean
Airport Robot

The Rise of the South Korean Airport Robot

When you check in for your flight at South Korea’s Incheon International Airport in Seoul, don’t be too surprised if instead of being assisted by airport information staff, you are greeted by a googly-eyed robot. While this might sound like something from a science fiction movie, it is in fact reality, as following on from successful trials in 2017, the appropriately-named Airport Guide Robots are now a permanent fixture, and their technology is becoming increasingly advanced.

Robotics in South Korea

In Japan, robot technology is fairly common, with the country home to robot-staffed hotels and receptionist robots such as ‘Pepper’, a humanoid who can read human emotions.

In South Korea though, as yet very few robots, especially those with human characteristics, interact with the public. Having said that, the country is no stranger to robot technology. Factory production is often done by robot, and there are plenty of Korea-based robot design competition winners. In 2015, a robotics team from South Korea designed and built a humanoid robot that completed tasks without losing its balance, beating both the USA and Japan to win the DARPA Robotics Challenge.

Early airport robot trials

Early prototypes of South Korea’s airport robots were introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in 2017. Public trials of the Airport Guide Robot followed in July 2017, when the machine was known as Troika. Designed by LG Electronics, Troika greeted travellers at Seoul’s Incheon International Airport, with the hopes that any problems with its performance or function could be ironed out before the 2018 Winter Olympics.

With its blinking and smiling eyes, Troika has human characteristics without being too humanlike. It is 140cm tall and has a front display screen, rather like a giant tablet or smartphone, which shows up-to-the-minute flight departures, a map of the airport and the weather forecast. Troika speaks four languages: English, Korean, Chinese and Japanese; and by using both touch-screen and voice-recognition technology, can answer passengers’ questions. When you insert your flight ticket into Troika’s scanner, it will tell you which departure gate you require and inform you how long it will take you to get there. Being a self-driven machine, it will also offer to escort you to the gate.

The airport also trialled a second robot, whose main purpose was to sweep the floors. Like a giant version of the household robotic hoover, the Airport Cleaning Robot is shorter and fatter than Troika, not too dissimilar from Star Wars’ BB-8 droid. It works by detecting areas that require the most cleaning, storing them in its database, and then calculating the most efficient way to get there.

A work in progress

Initial trials of both robots were very successful, although there were a few teething issues. Troika knew where it was in the airport and could avoid obstructions when moving, but sometimes travelled too slowly for passengers in a hurry for their flights. Furthermore, when Troika first appeared at Incheon International Airport, it got a lot of stares, drew crowds and had a lot of people wanting to take its photo, which rather detracted from its job. Still, it was free publicity.

Although Troika was found to be very useful for non-Korean speakers needing help at the airport, it sometimes failed to understand badly-worded questions, or voice commands given in strong accents.

Meanwhile, following on from the sad case of a Washington-based security robot named Steve, who managed to drown itself in a fountain, it became apparent that somebody needed to keep an eye on the robots at all times.

2018 Winter Olympics rollout

With a few tweaks made, the newly-renamed Airport Guide Robot and Airport Cleaning Robot were rolled out in in February 2018, just in time to assist passengers attending the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang. Incheon International therefore became the first airport in Korea to introduce a service robot to the public, with the hopes that the presence of the robots would show international visitors that Korea is a world leader in innovative technology.

By the time the Olympic Games came around the Airport Guide Robots had learned how to point passengers in the direction of helpful staff when they didn’t understand questions, as well as learning how to ask passengers to stay closer if they outwalked the bot to their gate. Meanwhile the cleaning robot now plays uplifting music as it sweeps.

The robots also have human minders who follow them around, armed with a remote control, in case they veer off track. So far the robots have not been given human names, perhaps for fear that they will become too human.

The future

While the idea was never for airport robots to entirely replace human workers, they do serve a useful purpose, assisting passengers in finding their gates, translating for non-Korean speakers and calming nervous flyers. They reduce the number of (human) staff required to work the night shift, as well as preventing airport employees from spending hours on their feet walking passengers to their gates.

Following on from the successful trial in Seoul, Korea Airports Corp hopes to follow suit and introduce air-purifying robots into the country’s other airports. In the future, it is thought that robots might be used to advise travellers on what they are permitted to take onboard, or even to serve food and carry luggage. There are also plans to give the robots voice-recognition technology similar to Amazon’s Alexa and move them into the home, allowing homeowners to ask them to do household chores such as the vacuuming, mowing the lawn, or preheating the oven.

Robot technology is still in its infancy, although there are plenty of promising ideas in the pipeline. However, it would seem that it will still be a long while before the robots take over completely.