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Meet Ray, the self-driving forklift that is parking cars at a German airport

Too rushed to find a parking space? For a price, this robot will do it for you. (Federico Gambarini/EPA)
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Travelers at Dusseldorf Airport in Germany don’t even have to park their cars anymore. Last week the airport begin a using self-driving robot that resembles a forklift to deliver some cars to and from an appropriate parking space.

The idea is to get business travelers in and out of an airport as quickly and easily as possible. A driver can pull into a transfer station at the parking lot entrance and leave their car after checking in on a digital touchscreen. Sensors in the station measure the dimensions of the vehicle, and send that information to one of the robots. The robot, called Ray, adjusts its arms to fit the new vehicle, then drives to the transfer station and slides its arms around the tires to lift the vehicle off the ground.

The electric-powered Rays travel at speeds up to 6 mph. Each Ray drives autonomously, guided by laser navigation and mapping software. The Ray knows its exact location thanks to its lasers that bounce off reflectors positioned throughout the garage.

The company behind the technology, Serva Transport Systems, integrates flight and baggage claim data from the airport into its software, so that a Ray will know to have your car waiting at the garage exit by the time you arrive. If your flight is delayed, it will be aware and wait to deliver your car. And it asks if you’ll be checking a bag, so it knows whether to wait to pull your car until after baggage has been delivered to those on your flight.

Chief executive Rupert Koch claims using the Ray can increase a parking structure’s capacity by 40 percent. He credits this to more efficiently parking cars, by putting small cars with small cars, and large cars with large cars. For travelers, the convenience costs $40 a day or $5.50 an hour. The current pricing for the parking service, called Premium Plus, is fairly comparable to other options at the airport (full prices here).

Koch says the system could work fine without any human oversight, but the airport is having an employee on hand in case travelers have questions about how to use the new option. The current set-up at Dusseldorf features three Rays, six transfer stations and has room to park up to 249 vehicles. The overwhelming majority of parking spots at Dusseldorf are still of the old-fashioned variety. According to an airport spokesman, 130 vehicles have used the Ray service in its first week, which he said was a soft launch.

Koch sees airports and the end of car assembly lines as the best-use cases for Rays. Automakers generally need to store vehicles in short-term parking as they come off the assembly line, and Ray offers an automated solution.

While shopping malls might find a use for the technology, he acknowledged it wouldn’t be a fit at sporting events or music shows, where large crowds exit at the same time.

The 15-person company, based outside Munich, began to tackle the parking challenge in 2010. Its simplest system, including two Rays, two transfer stations and the relevant software, costs almost $1.2 million. Serva Transport Systems isn’t currently profitable, but Koch is optimistic given the interest he’s had from other airports that the company will turn a profit next year.