Some travelers get to the airport and all they want to do is check bags, navigate security, and find their gate. They walk past every concession because they just want to get to their boarding area.
Ritukar Vijay calls them “gate-huggers.” And the co-founder and CEO of startup tech company Ottonomy.IO sees a world of opportunity with them.
Ottonomy began testing autonomous delivery vehicles at Pittsburgh International Airport in November as the latest pilot project coordinating with PIT’s xBridge innovation hub, which has recently worked with teleoperated vehicles and algae-powered air purifiers.
“We are committed to providing the best customer experiences, by discovering and implementing innovative solutions that utilize cutting-edge technology,” said xBridge Director Cole Wolfson. “We’ve built a culture of innovation and we are excited to partner with Ottonomy to advance this technology in an airport environment.”
Vijay’s vision is to activate what he sees as an untapped market, bringing products sold in the airport’s stores to travelers who typically do not stop to visit stores or eateries in the airport.
His team is fine-tuning a process that will do just that. Customers will order via an app on their phone, the robot will then pick up the item and swiftly and accurately bring it to the customer at their gate. When the Ottobot masters that, the opportunities for Ottonomy are exponential.
“Across the globe, airports are similar,” Vijay said. “There might be large and smaller ones, but more or less the overall setup is similar. So that gives us scale: if it works at a couple of airports, it is applicable to almost all of them.”
Ottonomy was born out of the 15-plus years Vijay spent working with autonomous vehicles at various companies, including Aptiv, which traces its roots to General Motors and has had partnerships with Hyundai and BMW.
In 2019, he and his partners sensed a shift in carmakers’ priorities from developing fully autonomous vehicles to developing fully electric vehicles.
“Being part of the industry, we saw that coming,” Vijay said. “And that’s why we thought that we should use the know-how and create new technology around being autonomous, but for solving a real use case.”
Ottonomy launched in 2020, in the middle of the pandemic. While robotic delivery vehicles had been deployed in various environments for years by then, Vijay said most were teleoperated, or remotely piloted by humans.
He says his company is better positioned to scale up and avoid the impact of labor shortages, since his autonomous robots —fondly referred to as Ottobots—do not require human assistance.
“We focused on full autonomy right from day one. Our approach has been to ensure that the Ottobot would have the capacity to run autonomously in crowded and dynamic environments,” he said.
They found that type of environment in which to test Ottobot at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, where the robots equipped with LIDAR and a wide variety of sensors rolled out at the end of 2021.
Ottonomy took the learnings from that trial run and unveiled the new and improved Ottobot 2.0 at PIT in November. Currently, the company is working with airport staff and volunteer travelers at dedicated locations in PIT to deliver bottles of water.
This version has been upgraded to improve maneuverability: it can perform zero-radius turns and even “crabwalk,” or move sideways, to help it move through crowded terminals and avoid people and obstacles in its path.
Vijay explained that his team is keen on making sure everyone can be accommodated with the robots. The Ottobot 2.0 includes adjustments for user accessibility. For example, if a customer is in a wheelchair and not standing, that changes the logistics of the delivery.
While he admits to a level of “personal satisfaction” in bringing his technology to Pittsburgh, often referred to as the global capital of robotics, it’s really that airports have proven to be the perfect places to test the Ottobot. .
“Airports are a unique spot. There’s some amount of structure and scale,” he said. “It is very dynamic, where the users are concerned. That kind of dynamic environment, that is very, very important, to figure out how autonomous navigation can be utilized within that space.”
PIT presented a unique twist for Ottonomy’s pilot project; after all, the airport already has autonomous robots roaming the terminals courtesy of Carnegie Robotics.
Vijay said that it’s interesting to see the robots interact when they encounter each other. Although they serve different purposes—the scrubbers’ goal is to cover as much ground as possible and the Ottobots are aiming for the straightest line from point A to B—he referred to the collective as a “robot family.”
“I think that gives you a glimpse of the future, right there,” he shared.