Are driverless loaders the future?

GSE Cargo
The Editor looks at whether autonomous cargo loaders could be a reality on the ramp and the intermediary solution that exists today.

We hear a lot today about the rise of autonomous vehicles on the ramp especially in respect to cargo dollies and baggage tractors, but what about autonomous cargo loaders? What progress has been made in this area? According to leading GSE manufacturers we are still a way off before we’ll see driverless loaders approaching an aircraft.

The complexity of operating fully autonomously vehicles in such a closed and busy environment on the ramp makes the entire idea highly improbable at this stage, but an intermediary step towards automation in the form of docking technologies is already disrupting the market, with many GSE companies taking advantages of the safety and labour cost benefits.

“We are working on the autonomous final approach to the aircraft door, autonomous alignment to the aircraft door, which makes more sense to use when approaching the aircraft door being the most sensitive part,” said Gwenn Hervet, General Manager and Chief Sales Officer, Europe, Weihai Guangtai.

Weihai Guangtai, the biggest GSE manufacturer in Asia, has been carrying out tests based on its experience with baggage tractors, but recognises that developing fully autonomous cargo loaders is more problematic.

“Autonomous cargo loaders are giving us more challenges as they are approaching the aircraft door and the aircraft area is normally full of obstacles like aircraft wings, engines, dollies, luggage carts, GSE operators, airline supervisor etc,” explained Hervet.

“We anticipate – and this is confirmed by the IATA working group dedicated to autonomous vehicles – that baggage tractors and other transportation vehicles will come first whereas loaders will likely be one of the last autonomous GSE in operation.”

Hervet adds telemetry will play an important role by allowing remote control access of the equipment similar to what we are seeing in demo projects for passenger boarding bridges.

TLD is already making great strides in this area of autonomous vehicles. In partnership with TractEasy, the EZTow made headlines last year when it went fully driverless at Toulouse-Blagnac Airport and is the most deployed autonomous tow tractor globally.

TractEasy is also currently developing the EZDolly, a fully driverless cargo handling solution that carries the cargo from the cargo hall to the loader, including the loader docking. It has been awarded the complete automation of cargo handling by a major freight forwarder operator in the US, including both the cargo loader automatic docking and the EZDolly solution.

But fully autonomous loaders are not a viable solution today until aircraft operations will be automatised, says Valentin Schmitt, CEO of TLD. In the meantime, automatic docking is the next logical step towards fully automation, he says, describing it as a ‘game-changer’ for the market.

“Anticipating today that change, even for the future, is critical,” he said. “As far as safety is concerned, docking is obviously the essential step in the process for which automation can deliver substantial gains in terms of aircraft safety and ground operations in general, and as far as productivity is concerned, the issue is not the economics of the loader driver, which then has to operate the loader and the container movements in the aircraft, but the economics of the entire marshalling operation, which can be costly.”

JBT AeroTech has also been developing its automated JetDock solution to its existing loader fleet: the Commander, Ranger and CLT8 vehicles and is working with a major US freight forwarder to install its docking solution in the coming weeks. The company has focused on automating the last 10m of the loader’s journey towards an aircraft where accidental damage occurs.

“There are multiple things an operator has to do while driving that last 10m to the aircraft so we said that’s where we’re going to focus on autonomy where aircraft damage and delays happen,” said Nick Heemskerk, Vice President Global Product Development.

“We’ve automated 90% and kept the operator in charge to keep an eye on things. Our approach has been to take the hardest part and automate it without trying to eat the whole apple at once.”

The JBT AeroTech loader range comes with sensors that detect the open aircraft door on the fuselage, which plots a path and configures a loader to drive along it.

“We’ve also some collision avoidance or object detection features. Although the operator is still in charge, we’ve added sensors at the ground level and at the platform level that helps notify the operator when there’s an object and to stop,” he said.

He says that they’ve noticed a significant reduction in aircraft damage since they’ve introduced the Aircraft Proximity Detection System, a recommendation within IATA AHM. “A lot of the elements from that system are also on JetDock loaders and I’d expect a similar kind of performance.”

Trepel says it already has a market leading Aircraft Collision Avoidance System with GPS monitoring and state-of-the-art sensing technology. “Plus we are working heavily on environmental projects such as electrification across our suite of products,” said Daniel Davis, Sales Manager at Trepel.

He is sceptical whether loaders could go fully autonomous in 10 years’ time, explaining: “The issue is that human interaction is required to be involved in the loading and unloading process and to be responsible for safety. With autonomous docking, is there really a saving in terms of head count on the ramp as there is no way to currently comply with AHM913 using such equipment, it’s probably a long way off.”

Heemskerk agreed saying it depended on the aircraft, but normally you need an operator to physically unlock the cargo containers when unloading an aircraft.

“Today once the loader docks, the operator goes into the aircraft and releases the locks that secure the containers in place. So unless there’s automation on the aircraft cargo floor we’ll need somebody to do that. It’s the same thing with moving the containers or pallets inside the aircraft, some aircraft have automated systems for that. But that’s a minority today so there’s manual work to do and some of that isn’t 100% in our control, although driving can be automated.”

Hervet says it is unlikely to see an airport with fully autonomous vehicles in 10 years’ time. But AVs address issues of safety and lack of skilled and trained manpower.

“Most incidents are due to human failures, and not wrong doing of equipment. We assume that with the technology being more present in airports and many demos going on, AVs are likely to reduce aircraft damage. Weihai Guangtai is testing autonomous baggage tractors in Australia and we’ll be excited to see the results,” he said.

Buoyant market
The second half of 2023 and the first weeks of 2024 have been busy for Weihai Guangtai.

“As people know, the cargo loader is one of our key vehicles, and one of the most advanced; and people have started to realise it too. We’ve seen great achievement in many regions in the world while the Chinese domestic market is still slowly recovering. 2023 is the fi rst year that overseas sales of cargo loaders in international business over-passed the Chinese market, and the trend will continue in 2024,” said Hervet.

“We’ve managed to sell loaders to all the main ground handling companies and leasing companies: Swissport, Menzies, SATS, dnata, Aviapartner, Celebi, TCR and Air Rail. Southeast Asia was the biggest overseas market with outstanding sales of loaders in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Laos, Indonesia and Cambodia. The Middle East is a key achievement for us as we’ve been selected by dnata for loaders at its Dubai hub, delivered equipment to Swissport Oman and Saudi Arabia and are targeting more loaders, especially in Saudia Arabia in 2024.

“But the biggest achievement for us in terms of loaders is the European market, where we only commercialise electric cargo loaders and GSE in general, while customers were still reluctant to select us, because Guangtai was new in this market, the demo units that we have performed in several countries: Hungary, Spain, Poland, Italy and Hungary allowed our customers to see the performance and reliability of the units.

To support the sales of loaders in Spain to the three winners of the ground handling licences, Italy and France, and we’ve opened a subsidiary in Germany, Guangtai Germany whose role will be to ensure sales, marketing and aftersales for the European market.”

Guangtai is also welcoming a new member to its loader family in 2024 to support its presence in Europe and to respond to the demand of customers.

He added: “We’ll launch a 3.5 tons cargo loader to serve the A319/320/321 containerised aircraft and are looking at introducing our 35 tons MDL in Europe, once we complete the CE certification of the unit.”

Trepel is expecting a strong order book in 2024, with Davis saying: “We’ll continue adding electric products to our range.”

“TLD’s most popular models are the ipHS (pluggable hybrid) and reGen solutions to help our customers with the transition to electric,” added Schmitt.

This article was published in the February 2024 issue of Ground Handling International, click here to read the digital edition and click here to subscribe

A Guangtai 15t electric main deck loader operating in Seville Airport, Spain

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