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Denver Airport scraps automated system

Posted by bboyes on August 29, 2005 at 9:49 PM PDT

In the category of automated systems which never worked, and as a cautionary tale against grandiose robotic systems:

This month marks the end of a costly and ultimately fruitless experiment for United Airlines at Denver International Airport. The airport's automated baggage handling system was supposed to be a marvel of modern technology when the airport opened in 1994, but United was the only airline ever to use the system plagued with breakdowns and shredded luggage.

Ditching the system will save $1 million in maintenance costs every month, and test runs with baggage handlers on incoming flights have already proven that human hands are faster and more accurate than the automated behemoth ever was, a United official told the New York Times on Saturday. What to do with the extra space taken up by the 26 miles of track for the system? The airport says it has already put 33 automatic baggage scanning machines down there to comply with FAA mandates for X-ray screening of all checked luggage.

One expert who has studied the sad sack arc of baggage movement in Denver said the designers had invested too much belief in the wizardry they thought was at their command.

"It wasn't the technology per se, it was a misplaced faith in it," said Richard de Neufville, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and engineering systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Professor de Neufville said the builders had imagined that their creation would work well even at the busiest boundaries of its capacity. That left no room for the errors and inefficiencies that are inevitable in a complex enterprise.

"The main culprit was hubris," he said.

Sharp corners, for example, were too much for the system to deal with. The whirring baggage carts, programmed to pick up and drop off bags in a perfectly coordinated ballet, often just tipped over and dumped their loads.

Then there was the lizard tongue, formally known as a telescoping belt loader, which was designed to shoot out from the track system's maw directly to an airplane's luggage doors. It, too, was a flop.

BAE Automated Systems of Carrollton, Tex., which designed the system, has since been liquidated, and no one associated with the effort could be reached for comment.
- and NY Times article

News like the above serves to remind me that even the experts (we assume they didn't hire amateurs here) can really screw up. And that, ultimately, if the system isn't maintainable (how can it require $1M of maintenance per *month*?) it is worthless, no matter what "great technology" it incorporates.

... and don't you wonder why it took 10 years to figure out that this system was doomed? Perhaps if United is willing to spend $120M flogging a dead horse, so to speak, we can better understand why they are in their current financial straits.

... and finally, if we can't even design a working automated baggage handling system for a few hundred million dollars, how close can we realistically be to autonomous robots "taking over the world", as Hollywood loves to portray? I don't think I'll lose any sleep over that threat for a while. So perhaps every cloud does have a silver lining.

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