How robot parking may revolutionize airports.

by John Walton
August 09, 2019
The robots are already cute…could they be even cuter. Photo: John Walton

Drive to the airport and follow the signs for “robot parking”. Pulling up to a covered parking box, your booking is scanned and the door opens, allowing you to get out and head straight for the terminal while a robot parks your car for you, bringing it back and having it ready just after your plane lands.

Sound like science fiction? It’s not, it’s happening at Lyon Airport and I was fortunate enough to experience a demonstration recently, and it happened exactly like that. (Disclaimer: the airport upgraded my long-term parking, a value of approximately 10 Euros, to experience the system.)

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There are two key parts to the system, currently in operation at LYS’ Parking P5+ in a partnership with Stanley Robotics.

The first part is the dropoff and pickup boxes, which are in essence mini-garages. They are entirely automated and currently use a scanner system to identify a traveler’s booking but could easily use the same automated numberplate recognition (ANPR) system used at the airport’s other parking zones.



The drop-off garages are right next to the bus…but could be right next to the terminal in the future. Photo: John Walton

These boxes have front and back garage doors, with the front opening to receive the passenger’s vehicle and then closing before the back door opens to admit the rolling robot, which has a sort of height-adjustable flatbed.

Designed to cope with a wide range of personal cars, SUVs, vans and other vehicles, the little robot slides its flatbed under the car and extends the rods that then squeeze underneath the tires to lift the car using those tires rather than any kind of technical jack point.

The robot then trundles off to the parking area, using its algorithms to determine when the passenger will need their vehicle back and thus where it should be parked in the stack.

Photo: John Walton.

From a passenger experience perspective, the concept is smart. A very small footprint of enclosed parking boxes can be installed at a convenient point for passengers: at Lyon at present that’s right next to the circulator bus that hops between the terminals and longterm parking areas every 10-20 minutes, but there’s no real reason why the boxes couldn’t be very close in to the terminal with a bit of design thought.

The time savings alone from not having to cruise around longterm parking and remember that the car is in zone X, area 42, is worth the 5-10% premium currently being charged, but one imagines that the benefit for terminal-side parking would be even greater.

From an airport efficiency perspective, too, it’s a bit of genius. For a start, it means that a third more cars can be parked in the same amount of space, which is both a space and environmental benefit even before you start thinking of adding extra aboveground or underground levels that don’t need to be created with the space needed for human drivers.

Since the entire parking area is behind-the-scenes, it can be secured much more efficiently too.

The trial is ongoing, with a staffer following each automated robot with an emergency stop button at present, but looks set to continue given the strength of positive feeling.

Indeed, with Lyon being your author’s local airport it has been notable how popular the service is: I’d have paid the robot parking upgrade premium every time I used it recently, but the space was completely full. The airport is expanding the footprint of the robot zone, but it seems not fast enough for demand.

The one trick that seems to be missed is branding. The robots themselves are ripe for a Frontier Airlines-style campaign.

Perhaps some decals and notification emails along the lines of: “Your car, with license plate AB-123-CD, has been parked by Pierre Panda/Françoise Frog/Bertrand Bear/Cécile Cat,” maybe with an automated snap showing your beloved vehicle snoozing happily in its parking space while you’re away, and a second email before your arrival confirming that your car is in garage 3 ready for pickup?

That’s cute for kids, an amusing moment of whimsy for regular travelers, and a way to reduce the idea that our robot future has to be an impersonalized dystopia instead of a cute personification of convenient automation.