June 30, 2017      

With the recently announced airport security measures from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, we thought it would be worthwhile looking into the use of robotics in airport security. Robots are already being used in security situations, helping to keep humans away from potential threats, but what other security roles will robots perform in the future?

About a year ago, an individual opened fire on police in Dallas. Five officers were killed and nine others injured. To neutralize the shooter, Dallas police decided to use a different strategy. Instead of risking more police lives, they deployed a bomb robot.

Early the next morning, a robot equipped with explosives worked its way towards the shooter. Once in proximity, it detonated itself, ending the worst incident for U.S. law enforcement since 9/11.

The use of a bomb robot by police signals how quick robotics has trickled down from the factory and military. As police tap robots to stop criminals, another area where robots can be utilized for security is in airports.

Are robots the future of airport security? And, what are the opportunities for robotics companies?

Business Takeaways:

  • Airports are looking to robots to help solve many of their ongoing security challenges.
  • Robots will be involved in tasks ranging from facial recognition of potential threats, to bomb sniffing and disposal, and even acting as customs agents.
  • Though the cost of robots remains high, help keep humans away from potentially dangerous objects or situations.

Robots roll out for airport security

Last September, Shenzhen’s Bao’an International Airport deployed Anbot, a security robot to patrol the airport. Its objective is to monitor the departure hall at the airport, identify suspicious people and help people navigate through the airport. Anbot is equipped with a taser.

Qihan's Sanbot robot is being used in airport security as a customs agent.

The Qihan Sanbot is being used as a customs agent in some airports.

Months later, China deployed Qihan’s Sanbot to Gongbei Port to act as customs agents. Gongbei Port saw 99 million people pass through it in 2013. The robots have facial recognition technology to tell if someone is lying, and can also answer a range of different questions.

This is a different kind of robot border security, albeit without tasers and weapons.

Germany is also developing robots for transportation security — including airports. Early in 2016, employees at the Fraunhofer Institute for High Frequency Physics and Radar Techniques FHR, located in Germany, developed an anti-bomb luggage robot.

The robot is equipped with sensors and cameras to help map the environment around it. It then transmits this data back to the bomb-disposal experts that are controlling it remotely.

Tomorrow, if suspicious baggage is identified at Frankfurt Airport, instead of sending airport security and risking their lives, airport security could send this bomb-disposal robot instead.

Such technology can be integrated with other technology-focused plans the German government is deploying. In 2016, the German Interior Minister said the government is moving to introduce facial-recognition software at “transport hubs” as part of a counter-terrorism strategy.

Then last summer, Germany’s Interior Minister announced that they will be testing facial recognition technology at a train station in Berlin to identify terrorist suspects.

Can this system communicate with the anti-bomb luggage robot, monitoring people for suspicious behavior, notifying authorities and activating the robot to inspect luggage?

High cost of entry

One of the biggest setbacks for airport security robots is cost.

In 2010, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, which is called Atlanta Airport by locals, had four bomb-disposal robots working for them and at the time, had plans for a fifth robot that was capable of moving through the isles of a plane and scanning overhead compartments. They purchased the same brand of Telemax robots, at a price of $300,000.

Unlike other airports, Atlanta Airport has been using bomb-disposal robots since 1996 (they were introduced for the Atlanta Olympics).

In 2015, Seattle airport introduced a bomb-sniffing robot called Telemax that can analyze many objects for bombs, including overhead compartments, the underbody of vehicles and baggage. While the capabilities of the robot are a must-have for airport security, its cost remains high: $300,000.

Perhaps, more robotics companies can follow Qihan and offer robots under the “robotics as a service” model, removing the up-front cost, allowing more groups and hubs to access it through a monthly or yearly fee.

As the capabilities around airport security robots advances, security forces are deploying them in airports when terrorist incidents occur. For example, on April 12, 2016, Amsterdam Airport Schiphol was evacuated. Military forces then sent in a bomb-disposal to search the airport for explosives.

Security robots to replace dogs?

In the future, what we consider airport security robots could soon change as technology advances. In 2016, engineers working at Washington University in St. Louis were given a $750,000 grant to develop a “bio-hybrid nose.”

They want to develop advanced smell capabilities. This is part of a broader plan. Once the nose is developed, the engineers plan to use this bio-hybrid nose and attach it to “cyborg insects”. These micro-robots can then replace bomb sniffing dogs, and sniff luggage and other objects for explosives and other illegal objects.

Moreover, these cyborg insects, through a “biorobotic system”, are envisioned to operate as a “swarm” and be controlled remotely by tracking their heat signature as they move in the air.

Facial recognition robots could aid airport security at busy locations.

Robots could soon be deployed to scan for potential threats at crowded airport locations.

Bomb-sniffing cyborg insects and traditional anti-bomb luggage robots reflect just how advanced airport security has become. But, they also reflect a new problem that airports and by extension countries face — a problem that a robotics company can solve.

Being robots that rely on digital communications, these technologies are vulnerable to cyber attacks and power outages. They can be “switched off” through a cyber attack or their data can be intercepted and manipulated to move illegal objects on board a plane or another mode of transport.

Is there cyber-security strategy to protect airport robots deployed for security?

There is also the lack of clarity around how different robots deployed in a single airport will communicate with each other. Using the anti-bomb luggage robot being developed in Germany as an example, what happens if this robot is also operating with another robot, like Leo?

In May 2016, a telecommunications company from Switzerland called “SITA” tested a robot called “Leo” at Geneva Airport. Leo allows passengers to drop their bags inside the robot and scan their boarding pass to expedite their transit time.

But is Leo equipped with the technology to scan for weapons or bombs in passenger luggage? Leo simply takes the bags and drops them off at the conveyor belt. Is there a way Leo can communicate with the bomb-disposal robot, perhaps allowing that bomb disposal robot to access sensors in Leo to analyze luggage?

Having two robots creates an inefficiency. One robot is moving the bags while another robot is scanning them. Can these two roles be combined into one robot?

More on Security Robotics:

Airport security market likely to grow

Robots for airport security are a new phenomenon. In the future, airports could have robot detectors that change their capabilities based on the body-type of the person, artificial intelligence processing data from cameras, cyborg-insects flying around and sniffing luggage, and more.

These technologies will bring unparalleled security to airports and passengers. But, they will also present new challenges around the data they are transmitting and the vulnerabilities they have.

Equally important is that these robots, because of their security capabilities, can force terrorists to develop even more advanced methods to conceal weapons and bombs.

Regardless of what takes place, one thing is clear. Airports need a new kind of security apparatus and robots are arriving at just the right time.