January 19th, 2022

Ford International Airport launches FLITE to develop, introduce new high-tech air travel solutions

Partnership with MEDC, Southwest Airlines provides grants to innovation-driven companies, allowing them to test new products, services in live airport environment

Greater Grand Rapids

With support from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and Southwest Airlines, the Gerald R. Ford International Airport 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. Today, FLITE 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 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 organization with vast experience aiding global enterprises in maximizing projects and partnerships with leading startups, is providing proof of concept coordination 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, Nashville International Airport, Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport,San Antonio International Airport, San Diego International Airport, Tampa International Airport, 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, can get more information and apply here.

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.

Last year, 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,” said 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: Optimizing workforce resources to operate more efficiently, enhancing safety for freight and the movement of goods through distribution hubs.
  • Smart infrastructure: Deploying new technologies to optimize 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.

“FLITE’s focus areas provide a great opportunity to gain key insights into modernizing and improving operations for the airline and travel industries,” said Kevin Kleist, emerging trends advisor at Southwest Airlines. “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.”

FLITE has established a review committee to evaluate applications and award grants that includes: the MEDC, Michigan Department of Transportation, The Right Place, Inc., the city of Grand Rapids, Grand Ventures and Gentex Corp.

“We are honored to partner with the MEDC and Southwest Airlines on this unique venture, which is one of the first of its kind in the country,” said Dan Koorndyk, board chair of the Gerald R. Ford International Airport Authority. “We also appreciate the support of our review committee. We look forward to working more closely with our airport counterparts to enable companies to dream bigger – and to be successful in doing so.”

What other partners are saying:

Seamless: Matt Benson, director: “FLITE provides world-class innovators unique access to the airport’s real-world environment to implement and test solutions in a controlled and thoughtful way. Working through the challenges of deploying at the airport, the partners will benefit from the learning and insights gained as they work on scaling their solutions.”

StantecGeneration AV: Corey Clothier, founder and director: “AV technology has the potential to make our communities safer, more resilient and more sustainable. Airports have a proud history of transportation innovation and provide an ideal environment to launch the next generation of mobility. We are excited to be a sponsor of FLITE and to invest our time, resources and expertise into new technologies applied to airport operations.”

About the Ford International Airport

The Gerald R. Ford International Airport is the second busiest airport in Michigan, serving business and leisure travelers with nonstop and connecting flights on six airlines. The Ford Airport is managed and operated by the Gerald R. Ford International Airport Authority. For more information, visit www.flyford.org or follow the airport on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and Instagram @FlyGRFord.