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Japan’s biggest airline is building a robot army for the most high-tech Olympics yet

It’s one of several projects All Nippon Airways is launching to make traveling more accessible before the hordes descend on Tokyo this summer.

Japan’s biggest airline is building a robot army for the most high-tech Olympics yet

At the summer Olympic Games in Tokyo this July, athletes may be competing for attention with all the impressive tech on display, including self-driving taxis and a robot village. But this showcase of tech prowess isn’t limited to the stadiums—All Nippon Airways (ANA), Japan’s largest airline, has been busy developing various travel-focused technologies to be used across the nation’s airports as well as in Toyko’s shopping centers and tourist attractions.

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With the Olympic Games expected to drive an increase in foreign visitors this summer (as long as they’re not canceled due to the coronavirus), ANA recognized that a greater effort would be needed for its ground staff to communicate effectively with all passengers—in Japan’s airports, announcements are usually made only in Japanese or English. In December last year, ANA rolled out Pocketalk, a smaller-than-your-smartphone, AI-powered translation device that works with 74 languages, for use at the boarding gates and lobby of Osaka International Airport. Featuring a touchscreen and noise-canceling mics, the device can also handle certain dialects, slang, and idiomatic phrases.

Shinichi Abe, ANA’s chief airport operations officer, says the device is proving to be especially useful in providing timely information in unexpected situations, such as sudden cancelations or delays. By the end of March, the device will be in the hands of ANA ground staff in all 50 airports in Japan served by ANA. If Pocketalk performs well, ANA plans to implement the device aboard ANA flights and in airports outside Japan.

[Photo: courtesy of ANA]
Already being used inflight is the Bonx Grip, a smart earpiece similar to a cellphone earpiece. A flight attendant wearing this hearable tech device can speak naturally at a regular volume, and all other attendants wearing the noise-canceling earpiece—whatever their location on the plane, and despite the drone of the engine—will hear the speaker as if she were standing right beside them. The Bluetooth-powered device has already replaced the need for flight attendants to communicate with each other via the intercom on ANA’s Airbus A380 flying to Honolulu, the double-decker model that requires a large number of flight attendants to serve its capacity of 520 passengers.

It’s clear why ANA would want to make it easier for its employees to communicate with passengers and with each other while on board. But it also fits into the company’s larger strategy around using tech to making flying more inclusive—and bring in more passengers. Shinya Katanozaka, the president and CEO of ANA Holdings (ANA HD), ANA’s parent company, says that he believes “technologies which enable more people to equally and democratically participate in global discussions will ultimately drive passenger demand.”

This focus extends to more traditional accessibility as well. Back on the ground, ANA was seeing a steadily rising number of passenger requests for wheelchairs at Tokyo’s Narita Airport. Working with Panasonic, ANA began testing a way to serve more passengers with a limited amount of airport staff: remotely controlled electric wheelchairs. Although the wheelchairs are referred to as “self-driving,” a person is actually required to remotely control one main wheelchair, which then leads several more wheelchairs in a line, like train cars that are not physically linked together. This means that only one customer service agent is needed to assist several passengers simultaneously, freeing up agents to handle other requests. Although still in the testing phase, ANA plans to introduce the service at Narita Airport sometime this year, and possibly expand to other airports in Japan.

While these tech gadgets aim to tackle the more common problems of air travel, the company’s most intriguing investment in futuristic tech doesn’t involve air travel at all. By this summer’s Olympics, ANA HD will deploy 1,000 robot avatars (designed in collaboration with OhmniLabs) called “Newmes” in high-demand areas in Tokyo, including shopping centers, tourist attractions and museums, and hospitals and elderly care facilities.

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[Photo: courtesy of ANA]
Think of the Newmes like those telepresence robots that allow remote employees to physically roam office hallways and take part in meetings—in this case, a user’s face shows up on a 10.1-inch video screen that sits atop a 5-foot-tall resin cylinder stuck into a base with wheels. But the Newmes will provide an enhanced user experience with robotic arms (and eventually other customizable accessories) that can be controlled for precise actions, like pouring a glass of water, fishing, or even hugging your grandma in the retirement home. If you use a Newme installed in a Japanese shop, you’ll also be able to have any purchases you want to make shipped directly to your home.

The short-term goal is to make avatars available to the Japanese public and for use internally by companies and governmental agencies (unfortunately, Newmes won’t be stationed inside Olympic facilities due to sponsorship rights). Users will be able to log in to the platform (to launch in April this year) on a personal computer, although a mobile version of the app will be ready by next year. Eventually, people around the world will have access to Newmes via a global portal currently in development.

Newme looks like a telepresence robot. [Photo: courtesy of ANA]
Katanozaka says that because the aim is to use the avatars “as a form of social infrastructure,” the cost to log in to a remote avatar system will be kept affordable, roughly equivalent to a bus or train fare. Presently, an estimated 6% of the world’s population is flying on planes, and Katanozaka believes that robotic avatars will “usher in a new era of global mobility that will help to connect the remaining 94% of the population.”

After this first batch has been deployed, ANA HD will continue to install more avatars throughout Japan and around the world, including non-Newme robots currently in the works. The company is also sponsoring a global contest, the $10 million ANA Avatar XPRIZE, to encourage and accelerate the development of avatar systems.

Avatar [Photo: courtesy of ANA]
Of course, this futuristic technology is a concept that, at first glance, appears to encourage armchair traveling and reduce the need to fly—a counterintuitive move for an airline. Katanozaka dispels this notion, saying that the purpose of pursuing robotic avatar technology “is not to replace real transportation, but to make travel that was once logistically difficult, or outright impossible, possible.” Robotic avatars could assist, for example, with the difficulty of sending doctors and experts to Wuhan and other areas of China due to the current coronavirus outbreak, Katanozaka adds.

But the company also wants to send people to outposts in the depths of the ocean—and even to the surface of the moon. ANA HD has already joined forces with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to create Avatar X, a program that is on a mission to develop robot avatars for space exploration and for the treatment of patients in low Earth orbit space stations by Earth-bound doctors.

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Avatar X [Image: courtesy of ANA]
It will be awhile before you can hang out on the moon from the comfort of your couch. But if you’re lucky enough to be in Japan for the Olympics this year, you can at least “teleport” yourself into a mall from your hotel and avoid the crowds.

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