October 5, 2022

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Travelling Tomorrow

Companies reveal new air travel technology, devices at GR airport

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CASCADE TWP. — The first cohort of companies to receive grants through an air travel technology development program have revealed the fruits of their labor, including a self-driving wheelchair, an advanced flying security camera and a complete 3D model of Gerald R. Ford International Airport

Awardees in the Ford Launchpad for Innovative Technologies and Entrepreneurship (FLITE) program displayed their technologies at the Grand Rapids airport today.

“We really want to do more than just connect people and packages to their destinations,” airport CEO Tory Richardson said today at a celebration of the grantees’ progress. 

The airport in January partnered with the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and Southwest Airlines to launch FLITE — a joint effort to provide funding and a live testing environment for companies on the forefront of air travel technology solutions. FLITE grants are designed to boost companies’ work on improving safety and security, optimizing workforce and infrastructure resources, providing timelier, more accurate data and improving the guest experience.

The MEDC provided $150,000 in the first round of grants through the Michigan Mobility Funding Platform. 

“FLITE’s goal is to add value in a multifaceted way,” said MEDC Technology Activation Manager Charlie Tyson. 

According to Tyson, the grants are an opportunity to not only support emerging companies, but also to solve some of the problems airports are facing and spur innovation in Michigan. 

Aurrigo, WHILL and Sunflower Labs were selected from more than 20 applicants to receive the first round of grants. 

Aurrigo, a U.K.-based company focused on automated vehicle development, has created a digital model of the Grand Rapids airport’s airside operations, including each roadway, intersection and type of vehicle. In partnership with airport planning staff, Aurrigo’s team of simulation engineers and project management specialists used real-time data on fleet capacity and flight schedules to create a full simulation of current airside operations. 

The Aurrigo model also has the ability to plot possible future scenarios, such as the expected ongoing effects of labor shortages, the effect of severe weather events and flight delays, as well as to model tests of potential automated solutions to airside efficiency issues.

WHILL, a wheelchair design company based in San Mateo, Calif., has been developing and testing an autonomous chair to free up airport staff while maintaining or improving the guest experience. 

WHILL collected feedback from more than 100 passengers at the Grand Rapids airport, and 61 percent reported that their experience with the prototype chair was “excellent.” 

According to WHILL Director of Business Development Shannon Fain, the test runs at the Grand Rapids airport were the chair’s first trial passing through a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint.

The WHILL chairs are self-directed and self-returning — a technological solution that could free up wheelchair pushers on staff for other work.

Sunflower Labs, also based in California, specializes in drone security systems. The “drone-in-a-box” technology that the company has developed can deploy in five seconds and remotely observe four acres of property in 30 seconds. The drone is self-navigating, geofenced, avoids obstacles, provides a high quality video live stream and is functional in most weather conditions. It needs just 15 minutes to charge between flights.

According to Sunflower Labs co-founder and CEO Alex Pachikov, Grand Rapids is the first airport to certify the drone’s operations — a step Pachikov said he expected to take much longer.

Grand Rapids-based I.T. consultant Seamless provided proof of concept coordination for FLITE grantees. Stantec Generation AV, a Canadian design firm with a focus on autonomous vehicles, provided assistance with autonomous vehicle planning and deployment, as well as safety verification.

Outside feedback on applications and scaling potential were provided to FLITE by six U.S. and Canadian airports, the U.S. Air Force and Vantage Airport Group. Southwest Airlines has offered free flights for grantees to travel to other airports as they work toward scaling the projects up.

A second set of grants will be awarded in June.

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