Customer Service Robot Debuts at Indy Airport...

Robot makes big bang at Indy Airport

John Tuohy, 9:28 a.m. EDT October 10, 2014

Ever feel like you're talking to a robot when you try to get questions answered at the airport?

Well, now you really will be.

Indianapolis International Airport on Thursday rolled out a customer-service robot to help answer passenger questions. The bot will complement its guest services desk but not replace it.

Indy's airport is the first in the nation to use the system, and officials say it solidifies the airport's reputation as one of the most user-friendly.

Called Double Robot, it will allow airport agents to interact with passengers through an iPad, propped on top of a roller wearing a customer-service shirt — sort of a Segway with a video-screen head.

The robot costs $2,500, plus the price of the head, er ... iPad. It is made by Double Robotics.

On the first day of its full rollout Thursday, passenger reaction ranged from perplexed to pleased.

Guest services director Brian Eckstein drove the robot remotely through the baggage claim area, his face visible on the screen and his voice piping cheerfully through a speaker. He greeted passengers in real time and asked if they needed help. A camera lens on the iPad gave him a wide view of the surroundings in front of him.

Most passers-by smiled but thought the robot was simply a greeter, rather than an answer man. Others thought it was a new airport security device.

When Cliff Willms, 62, of Sioux City, Iowa, was told he could ask Eckstein questions, he said he wasn't ready to take that step yet.

"I'd rather ask a human a question, than a machine," Willms said. "At this point, I'm good with just gawking at it."

But Sanders Hickey, 59, of Atlanta, Ga., said the robot was "a great ambassador for the airport."

"It's as cute as can be," said Hickey, who made small talk with Eckstein's head. "If my friend hadn't picked me up, I would have no problem asking it for directions. In fact, I made a new friend in Brian."

A robot that uses a tablet computer to talk to real people isn't as unusual as it might sound. Some passengers mentioned an episode of "The Big Bang Theory," in which a character named Sheldon decides to stay home in his apartment and live vicariously through "Shelbot." He rigs up the robot with a tablet that projects his image and voice, as he tours the city and hangs out with friends.

Airport spokesman Carlo Bertolini said their robot will be rolled to different parts of the airport, so passengers don't have to go all the way to the guest services area in the main concourse.

"We've experimented with it at the gates and other places," Bertolini said. "It seems especially useful to people who want to know where to catch taxis or shuttle buses."

The robot also will be used when the guest desk is closed. The counter is staffed from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m. Sunday through Friday and Saturdays 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.

"This initiative combines our staff's longstanding commitment to traditional Hoosier Hospitality with an innovative technology that can multiply its benefits," Michael Wells, president of the Indianapolis Airport Authority board, said in a news release.

The employees at the airport will soon hold a contest to give the robot a name.

How about anything but Shelbot?

Call reporter John Tuohy at 444-6418 and follow on Twitter @john_tuohy.


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