Airport hosts tech mobility companies

MEDC grants used for digital mapping, wheelchairs and drone security.
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WHILL is testing autonomous wheelchairs that would allow the airport to redirect its staff for other purposes. Courtesy Ford Airport

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Gerald R. Ford International Airport is the lift-off site for some companies.

But maybe not in the way people might think.

The GFIA Authority has partnered with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) and Southwest Airlines to create Ford Launchpad for Innovative Technologies and Entrepreneurship (FLITE).

FLITE provides grants and testing opportunities to companies focused on air travel technology solutions. Three companies have begun utilizing FLITE to further product development.

The companies are United Kingdom-based Aurrigo, Japan-based WHILL and California-based Sunflower Labs. 

Each company was given $50,000 from the MEDC through the Michigan Office of Future Mobility and Electrification to test its mobility products at GFIA with the possibility of using those products at airports that Southwest Airlines flies in and out of.

Aurrigo is using its auto-simulation software platform to create a “digital twin” of airside operations.

“They are currently reviewing all the air operations that occur by the airline gate,” said Ford International Airport COO Alex Peric. “They are trying to understand the movement of aircraft and ground service equipment, which includes de-icing trucks, belt loaders, pushback equipment, vehicles and things like that in and around the airport environment to see if they can come up with different pathways for bags to get to the bag rooms quicker or cargo pallets getting onto the aircraft quicker, so they are trying to map that out digitally to see if they can find any efficiencies there.”

WHILL is an autonomous mobility device company that creates autonomous wheelchairs.

“We have wheelchair pushers, our employees, here at the airport for passengers who need that assistance, and obviously, it is a labor-intensive operation, so this company has come up with an autonomous wheelchair that is currently testing at the airport,” Peric said.

Sunflower Labs has created a remote autonomous drone-in-a-box security system.

“We’ve got around 3,000 acres of land here with miles of secure fencing around the airport, so monitoring all that land and ensuring that we have a secure airport environment is quite costly,” Peric said. “It takes a lot of time to do that, and this company has created a potential solution that can monitor via drone and video our perimeter fencing.

“Our ears perk up for sure with drones in and around our airport. We want to make sure that we are controlling any flying or airborne objects in and around our airport. We do set parameters for not only the drones and where they can operate and at what levels, but also the wheelchairs. These autonomous wheelchairs have to have safety as its No. 1 built-in priority, so we went to great lengths to ensure that these wheelchairs cannot injure anyone and that they can stop or potentially move or get out of the way, but specifically stop in front of obstacles whether that be a chair, column, person, child or an animal. Those were our concerns, but we have mitigated any of those risks out of the equation.”

Although the MEDC is investing in some global mobility companies, Charlie Tyson, MEDC mobility technology activations manager, said there are multiple goals of FLITE that will benefit West Michigan.

He said the priority is not only to support the airport’s objectives when it comes to innovation and improving the overall travel experience and being a leader when it comes to air travel, but also to support MEDC and other economic partners’ efforts in attracting talent and investments throughout Michigan, but specifically to West Michigan for this project.

“The goal is to find ways to get (companies) to scale their technology with partners and other local entities in West Michigan,” he said. “From an economic development perspective, we’re trying to get them to set up a team and hire locally in Michigan, and hopefully in Grand Rapids.”

GFIA has identified six core focus areas for new technology advancements through FLITE:

  • Security: Enhancing the guest experience while strengthening safety and security throughout the campus
  • Automation: Optimizing workforce resources to operate more efficiently, enhancing safety for freight and the movement of goods through distribution hubs
  • Smart infrastructure: Deploying new technologies to optimize infrastructure resources
  • Data analytics: Providing timely, accurate data to decision-makers
  • Hold room of the future: Improving the experience during the time prior to boarding
  • Safety: Improving safety of employees and equipment on the ramp, enhancing safety audits and real-time notification

The MEDC plans to issue a second round of grants in June. Any mobility company can apply on the MEDC’s Michigan Mobility Funding Platform.

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