JAL Trials NAO Service Robot: Self-Service V. Robot-Service

Earlier this month, Japan Airlines (JAL) trialled a new customer service-oriented robot at Tokyo Haneda Airport Terminal 1. During a 6-day period, the service robot interacted with travelers in Japanese, English, and Chinese to provide airport facility guide, flight status, destination weather, and local information. The JAL ground staff, through Apple Watch, were able to further instruct the robot to make passenger service announcements.

How the service robot worked (Source: JAL)

The service robot was a Nomura Research Institute (NRI)-customized version of “Nao“. Nao, 58cm in height, was developed by Aldebaran, a French subsidiary of Japanese telecom giant Softbank. According to the official Aldebaran introduction of Nao, the robot has a history in providing reception and concierge services at hotels. The trial at Haneda further proved Nao’s potentials in customer service.

Nao at the Henn-na Hotel in Nagasaki, Japan (Source: Aldebaran)


Over recent years, there have been more and more robots being utilized in the Japanese service sector. Of the robots, the most widely-discussed type is “Pepper“, for which the Japanese have obsessed over since a few years ago. At 121cm, Pepper is much larger in size than Nao. The technologically advanced robot can not only interact with humans but even identify emotions. Many companies have been or are planning on introducing Pepper as receptionists. A few examples include the stores of Softbank telecom, Nescafé, Tsutaya Bookstore, and Mizuho Bank. Other companies trialling robotic hospitality include mega department store group Mitsukoshi. In 2015, the group debuted the Toshiba human-like receptionist “Aiko Chihira” at its Nihonbashi store. Dressed in traditional Japanese clothing, Aiko was so realistic, many visitors didn’t realize it was a robot at first glance.

Pepper receptionist at a Nescafé store in Japan (Source: Aldebaran)


Without doubts, robots will certainly bring revolutionary changes to all business fields. In service sectors, robots can replace human workers in dealing with customers; for manufacturers, robots can take on hard tasks and work long hours. However, under certain scenarios, robots have yet to bring ground-breaking changes. Take the example of Nao as a JAL receptionist, the wow-factor and marketing effects far exceed the practicality, as the functions of Nao can be easily replaced by the constantly advancing JAL mobile app. When one can simply retrieve information from their own digital devices, who will bother asking for help?

Moreover, the aviation sector has been investing more in allowing travelers to self-serve. An example is the new Miami International Airport app, which attracted much attention from global aviation media. Developed by SITA Technology, the app takes into account the user’s trip plans and location to provide personalized support. Information given include walking time to boarding gate, flight updates, and baggage carousel number. The “Near Me” feature of the app even informs user of nearby shops and restaurants along with the respective walking times. JAL has also been innovative with its app, providing countdown to boarding and waiting time at security checkpoints.

Further decreasing the necessity of receptionists are innovations in automated check-ins. In 2015, Melbourne Airport Terminal 4 debuted the first completely self-service check-in facilities in the Asia Pacific region. Other airports, including Haneda Airport (ANA Terminal), Beijing Capital Airport, and Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, have already rolled out self-service baggage drop, not to mention the globally popular check-in kiosks.

Other related technologies include the popularization of mobile boarding passes and online check-ins. AirlineCheckins, a newly introduced website by Lufthansa Innovation Hub, is even calling for “never check[ing] in a flight again”. By registering and using the provided email address for ticket-booking, users will be automatically checked in the moment check-in is available.

While these apps and automated facilities have existing complaints, such as those on design and interface, >talkairlines sees the issues as solvable as UX and UI designers strive to become even more thoughtful and considerate. At the same time, it is necessary that airlines consider when it is impossible for humans to be replaced. For example, for customers who stress over technology, lack of group staff may greatly impact the passenger experience. Another example is how robotic ground staff may lead to airlines being viewed as insincere by the VIP. This situation is foreseeable, especially in countries such as Japan, where rules on etiquette are extremely complicated.

In conclusion, as application of robotic technologies further spread in the aviation sector, it will be interesting to observe airlines and airports balance the functions of robots and self-service technologies. Should human-like robots be included in the “man” in “manless”? Or should these robots go hand-in-hand with other technological innovations? Furthermore, to what extent should human personnel be maintained at airports? Let us wait and see. One thing for sure is that traveling will only get increasingly hassle-free.


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