Universal Robotics and NxtGen Robotics’ drinks cart robot. Still from Universal Robotics video

APEX Insight: As robots get closer to everyday use in the aviation industry, fears abound that they will steal jobs – but they might also make great sidekicks for employees.

It seems like robots have been everywhere we turn this year. Narita International Airport deployed a squat butler bot called HOSPI(R) to collect dirty dishes from dining areas in January and, this summer, LG is testing two new robots at Incheon International Airport. As passengers engage Airport Guide Robot for help with boarding passes and directions, Airport Cleaning Robot scurries along behind, retrieving errant bits of rubbish.

Coverage of these tests tends to focus on the jobs robots could steal from humans, but these bots are not versatile enough to replace humans, who are still much better at understanding conversational speech – and avoiding obstacles. Robots could, however, augment the efficiency of their overtasked human colleagues.

HOSPI(R) and Airport Guide Robot primarily serve as evangelists for socialized robotics itself, and they’re the latest in an established trend — airports are envisioning a future that includes active robots. Today, though, robots are getting stuck with less glamorous gigs.

Robots are ideal for repetitive, high-volume tasks, such as replenishing the drinks cart in the catering kitchen between flights. Universal Robotics and NxtGen Robotics’ drinks cart robot quickly determines which cans are empty, partially-full or unopened, and sorts them for recycling or redeployment – a repetitive and potentially physically painful task for humans.

SATS, a Singapore-based airline catering company, is introducing automated cooking to its workflow. In an SGD$18 million (USD$13.2 million) production-line upgrade, robots will be frying up rice and noodles to provide optimum flavor in the airline cabin. CEO Alexander Huntgate has promised, however, that these robots will be assisting the human workforce, not replacing it.

Meanwhile on the ground, San Francisco-based company Marble is testing a food delivery robot, even as the city considers pre-emptively banning it due to job loss fears.

Compared to a street delivery robot, an automated drinks or catering cart in the cabin seems quite feasible. Still, as is often the case with robotics and AI, the obstacle to acceptance isn’t the the technology itself, but how our social norms and economic systems can include that technology without hurting the people it’s supposed to help.