Ford International launches grant scheme to encourage tech-sector growth

Posted: 20 January 2022 | | No comments yet

Gerald R. Ford International Airport Authority has introduced the Ford Launchpad for Innovative Technologies and Entrepreneurship, to provide grants to companies developing new air travel technology solutions.

Ford International launches grant scheme to encourage tech-sector growth

With support from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) and Southwest Airlines, the Gerald R. Ford International Airport (GRR) Authority has introduced the Ford Launchpad for Innovative Technologies and Entrepreneurship, or FLITE, which provides grants and testing opportunities to companies focused on bringing emerging air travel technology solutions to market.

One of the first airport-based initiatives in the nation, FLITE provides funding to encourage design, development, and pilot testing of new products and services in a live airport environment. FLITE has unveiled the first round of grants, providing $150,000 to three companies, including:

  • Aurrigo: Auto-Sim® software platform to create a ‘digital twin’ of airside operations
  • WHILL: Autonomous mobility device
  • Sunflower Labs: Remote autonomous drone-in-a-box security system.

“The Ford International Airport has long been an economic catalyst for West Michigan,” said Tory Richardson, President and CEO of the Gerald R. Ford International Airport Authority. “FLITE enables us to harness that power and partner with entrepreneurs and established companies focused on developing innovative new products and services to improve air travel and foster a statewide ecosystem for innovation, entrepreneurship, and tech-sector growth.

“We can now offer this select group of companies the invaluable opportunity to test their products in the real-world airport environment. Successful products, as we saw last year (2021) with the UV disinfecting robot, can scale up to meet the demands of larger airports while improving the overall experience for our guests.”

Grand Rapids-based Seamless, an innovation facilitation organisation with vast experience aiding global enterprises in maximising projects and partnerships with leading startups, is providing proof of concept co-ordination for grantees.

Stantec Generation AV(R), the autonomous vehicle practice of Edmonton, Canada-based global design firm Stantec, is providing world-class experience in AV planning and deployment, including safety verification. The firm has also established an advisory committee of airport subject matter experts to provide guidance and evaluation of the technology applications. 

FLITE’s new advisory committee will provide feedback on the applications and pathways to scale proven and successful projects beyond Ford International Airport. They were chosen based on their commitment to innovation, industry leadership and technology solutions. Members include: Edmonton (Canada) International Airport (YEG), Nashville International Airport (BNA), Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport (MSP), San Antonio International Airport (SAT), San Diego International Airport (SAN), Tampa International Airport (TPA), the U.S. Air Force and Vantage Airport Group.

The MEDC is committing an initial $150,000 to FLITE through the Michigan Office of Future Mobility and Electrification, which is working closely with Ford International Airport officials to ensure a successful launch. More than 20 businesses submitted grant applications for the first rounding of funding. Interested parties for the second round of grants, which will be awarded in June 2022.

Ford International Airport hopes to expand the financial support of FLITE by adding sponsors and other supporters, including venture capital firms, interested in investing in the technology being developed.

In 2021, the MEDC awarded a grant to Pratt Miller to test its Large Area Autonomous Disinfecting, or LaaD, vehicle at the Ford International Airport, which was the first location in the world to pilot this new technology. This first-of-its-kind robot dispenses an FDA-approved disinfecting solution on high-contact surfaces, including seating, gates and vending machines.

The success of this test encouraged Ford International Airport officials to begin discussions with MEDC and Michigan’s Office of Future Mobility and Electrification, which led to FLITE.

“Michigan is and always has been a home for innovators, where next-generation mobility technologies can be developed, tested and deployed to address real-world challenges,” commented Trevor Pawl, Chief Mobility Officer for the Office of Future Mobility and Electrification. “We are proud to continue that rich legacy today through this innovative partnership with Ford International Airport and Southwest Airlines and congratulate the first cohort of FLITE for helping us shape the future of mobility as we know it here in Michigan.”

The Ford International Airport has identified six core focus areas for new technology advancements through FLITE:

  • Security: Enhancing the guest experience while strengthening safety and security throughout the campus
  • Automation: Optimising workforce resources to operate more efficiently, enhancing safety for freight and the movement of goods through distribution hubs
  • Smart infrastructure: Deploying new technologies to optimise infrastructure resources
  • Data analytics: Providing timely, accurate data to decision-makers
  • Hold room of the future: Improving the experience during the time prior to boarding
  • Safety: Improving safety of employees and equipment on the ramp, enhancing safety audits and real-time notification.

Kevin Kleist, Emerging Trends Advisor at Southwest Airlines said: “FLITE’s focus areas provide a great opportunity to gain key insights into modernising and improving operations for the airline and travel industries. We’re excited to partner with FLITE to support these high-potential products and services that can enhance Southwest’s mission to connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable and low-cost air travel.” 

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