Delta Air Lines sees a future in robotics

At CES, Delta's CEO talks about exoskeletons for freight loaders and other workers. Also on tap: airport displays tailored to individual passengers.

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Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
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Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Kent German
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A Delta flight arrives at London's Heathrow Airport.

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At CES this year, Delta Air Lines is playing a role beyond simply flying attendees to Las Vegas. CEO Ed Bastian arrived from Atlanta to give the opening keynote presentation Tuesday, where he outlined several larger announcements the company will make at the annual show.

As you'd expect for CES, Delta's news is all about proving that the airline is using the latest technology beyond just ordering the most-recent airliners. In a statement released before his appearance, Bastian said Delta will use its time in Vegas to show how it plans to reduce travel stress and improve the overall experience.

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"Travel has become an essential part of our lives, and CES is the perfect stage to show the world how technology and innovation ... will transform the future travel experience for customers across all points of the journey," Bastian said.  

At the airport


When passengers look at the Parallel Reality display, they'll see a personalized message.

Delta Air Lines

One of the most intriguing announcements is all about your time at the airport. In summer of this year, the airline will test a new digital screen at its Detroit hub that'll show information tailored to individual passengers, like connecting gates and boarding times. 

The advancement here is that the information for each person will be visible only to them without special glasses, even when as many as 100 passengers are looking at the screen at the same time. 

The airline said that the screens use a technology called Parallel Reality, from Misapplied Sciences, a startup based in Redmond, Washington. It works using special pixels that direct different colors in different directions, allowing thousands or even up to a million different images to be beamed out of one screen at a time.

The long-term vision is to tailor the entire airport experience just for you, said Albert Ng, CEO of Misapplied Sciences, who joined Bastian on stage. All the signs will be in your preferred language and the arrows on the floor will direct you to your gate.

Delta also wants to make boarding the plane a less stressful experience. The Fly Delta app will soon provide virtual queuing, alerting you when it's time to take your seat. "That means there's no need to cluster at the gate," said Bastian. "You know who you are."

Also for use on the ground, Bastian said, Delta will begin testing the use of Guardian XO exoskeletons this year. Made by Sarcos Robotics, the exoskeletons may help employees like freight loaders and maintenance workers lift much heavier loads than they normally would. Indeed, the gadget allowed such enhanced hefting when CNET's Lexy Savvides tried the Guardian last month. 


The Guardian XO is designed to help workers such as ramp agents lift heavy loads.

Delta Air Lines

In the air and elsewhere

As for improving the onboard experience, Delta is adding a "binge button" to its in-flight entertainment screens, which'll let passengers watch all available episodes of a television show without interruption. Content from Disney Plus, Hulu Originals and Spotify will be available on flights, along with a channel dedicated to films and shows written, directed or produced by women or with women in lead roles.

Behind the scenes, Bastian said, Delta will employ machine learning during operational disruptions like severe weather. The platform will analyze possible decisions and the predicted outcome to help its dispatchers minimize delays and cancellations and reroute passengers.

In perhaps the most welcome news of all for customers, Bastian said Delta wants to make Wi-Fi on the plane free and let you use your own Bluetooth headphones with the in-flight entertainment system. "Where else do you pay for Wi-Fi but on a flight these days?" said Bastian. "It should be free."

Back on the ground, the company will add new features to its app, like TSA checkpoint wait times, airport parking information and an integration with Lyft for arranging rides to and from the airport. Co-founder of Lyft John Zimmer joined Bastian on stage to explain how when you use Lyft within the Delta app to head to the airport, it'll automatically take into consideration flight delays and traffic using real-time data.

Bastian painted a picture of Delta's app as your personal digital concierge. "Imagine walking through the plane, choosing your seats with augmented reality," he said. "Today you can track your bags in real time on your app, but you should also be able to track everything from pets to a child traveling alone." 

He added that in the future you should look forward to having your bags picked up and taken to your hotel. This'll let you go straight to your business meeting or explore a new city without the stress of wondering whether your bag made it.

Though this is the first time an airline is going big at CES, Bastian spoke at the 2019 show during a keynote presentation by IBM CEO Ginni Rometty. 

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