Singapore robotic prototype aims to lighten load of airport baggage handlers

A baggage handler walks through international arrivals at terminal four at John F. Kennedy (JFK) airport.
A baggage handler walks through international arrivals at terminal four at John F. Kennedy (JFK) airport. PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - A new machine will make life easier for airport workers with the back-breaking task of carrying bags in and out of narrow-body aircraft at Changi Airport.

This comes three years after the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) challenged the industry to come up with a better way of doing the work.

A team led by Singapore Technologies Dynamics, in collaboration with Israel Aerospace Industries, has built a prototype that will help ease the load of such baggage handlers.

Larger planes with a bigger bellyhold do not pose a similar problem since the space is big enough for machines to be deployed.

The new prototype uses bar-code readers to address the challenges faced at various stages of the baggage handling process.

Loading bags into a trolley, for instance, is currently done manually. The prototype uses a robotic arm to do so.

For baggage unloading, an automatic trolley offloader prototype is able to lift a fully loaded baggage trolley, tilt it and offload the entire trolley's load onto the baggage conveyor belt in less than two minutes - with the push of a button.

The Aviation Challenge was launched in 2014, to develop innovative solutions to automate labour-intensive processes in airport operations.

For the first of two challenges launched, five teams, chosen from 14 which applied, were awarded a total of $9.2 million to develop prototypes, from September 2015 to July (2017).

Entries were evaluated by a panel comprising senior representatives from the aviation community, CAAS said on Thursday (Aug 17).

The winning team was presented with a cash prize of $500,000 by Second Minister for Transport Ng Chee Meng at an awards ceremony on Thursday.

He said: "We should systematically and proactively look for ways to apply technology such as robotics and automation, to raise productivity and create better jobs for all our air transport workers."

Mr Kevin Shum, CAAS director-general, said that the spirit of collaboration and innovation that the competition created - both within and beyond the aviation community - are key to ensuring that Singapore's aviation industry continues to flourish and offer many exciting and attractive opportunities.

Changi Airport Group's chief executive Lee Seow Hiang, said the airport is happy to support the drive for innovation that can help to enhance productivity and make the work environment more pleasant.

The second Aviation Challenge, expected to be completed by the end of this year, is looking at how to automate the process of consolidating cargo into larger pallets and containers for transport in aircraft, and the reverse process of taking cargo from these pallets and containers.