It’s the question on everybody’s lips, will self-driving vehicles someday take over our airports? And if so, how soon will this happen? Some people predict it could happen as early as next year while others say that fully autonomous GSE is years away.
What is certain the autonomous age has already begun thanks to leading GSE manufacturers like TLD and Charlatte shaping the market and trialling state-of-the-art driverless technology at airports across the world.
Working alongside human operators, these autonomous driving systems and lidar-driven technologies make processes in airside operations more efficient, not only in baggage handling but in runway management, refuelling and aircraft maintenance.
With in-built sensors, machine learning algorithms and real-time data analytics the autonomous vehicles or AVs can navigate complex environments with precision, optimising traffic flow and reducing congestion on the tarmac. Safety is enhanced too with fewer risks of human error.
At a time when there are labour shortages across the sector, automation enables airports to better manage resources, resulting in smoother operations.
The TractEasy EZTow from TLD and EasyMile was the first autonomous towing tractor to enter the market. TLD provides the vehicle chassis and EasyMile specialises in advanced driverless technology and has become the most deployed driverless tow tractor globally with more than 20 vehicles already in operation.
Currently, three TractEasy EZTows are being used for autonomous baggage towing on live flights at Singapore Changi Airport thanks to a collaboration between the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, Changi Airport Group and gateway services provider SATS - the first autonomous initiative to be approved airside at Changi.
Baggage tractors make up the largest fleet of vehicles on the ramp so it made commercial sense to see the benefits of integrating autonomous vehicles into their ramp operations.
“The airside of the future that CAG envisions is managed by skilled airside workers, augmented by autonomous vehicles delivering seamless operations. Observations are helping the group refine its thinking on autonomous vehicle technology, infrastructure requirements and other enablers required to support autonomous vehicle movement airside,” explained Richard Reno, CEO of TractEasy.
Similarly, Narita International Airport in Japan has deployed the TractEasy EZTow in partnership with the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.
Since early 2020, the driverless vehicles have been transporting baggage between two stations, located in a terminal and its satellite, with only remote supervision, plus the airport has not required any infrastructure modifications to accommodate the trips.
Automation works well in Japan as air traffic is increasing, and with a declining working-age population, a labour shortage is expected. Japan Airlines and Narita International Airport Corporation are therefore keen to promote the use of AVs to improve productivity, allocating staff to where they are most needed on the ramp.
“The long-term goal for JAL is to focus the workforce on value-added work and increase the number of autonomous baggage tractors to handle repetitive tasks involving long-distance travel,” added Reno.
The TractEasy EZTow has also served other major airports for baggage and/or cargo towing including the first in the United States, at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, Schiphol in the Netherlands, France’s Toulouse Blagnac Airport, and Oslo.
From January to March this year, Charlatte Manutention and its partner Gaussin Macnica Mobility (formerly ex-Navya), a leader in autonomous mobility systems, (which have formed the subsidiary Charlatte Autonom), successfully trialled their autonomous vehicle the Autonom Tract AT135 at Frankfurt Airport in collaboration with the airport operator, Fraport.
The Autonom Tract AT135 connected future Terminal 3 to Terminal 2 of Frankfurt Airport over an 8km roundtrip to reach a total mileage of plus 400km in autonomous mode, and was used for luggage trailers indoors and outdoors as well as for transporting cargo. It had to operate in mix-traffic with other vehicles, tractors, tankers, as well as other GSE and of course, ramp operators, and proved its capabilities in real-time conditions.
Its long-term and future use now depends on further testing and the respective outcome, said a spokesman from Fraport.
“However, we can already say that its use for non-time-critical baggage transport is rather conceivable. It proved itself overall under very dynamic test-conditions, such as a wide variety of weather-related influences and different traffic conditions. Based on the promising test results, we would like to continue working with the autonomous tractor,” he said.
As a specific outcome of the evaluation, Fraport has meanwhile identified 16 technical, operational, regulatory and organisational requirement fields, for example, training and sensibilisation of ground handling staff when using such systems and precise signalling at complex intersections, which it plans to evaluate by further test runs.
Sébastian Hoyos, Export Sales Executive & Autonomous tractor manager, Charlatte Manutention, said the GSE manufacturer has been trialling their AVs around the world and recently just finished testing the AT 135 for the second year in a row at Charles de Gaulle in partnership with a major airline and at other airports including Toulouse.
Hoyos said: “I do believe this is a solution in the long term for aviation and I foresee it happening in the near future,” before adding that: “Any limits or objections to implementing this solution at present is not related to the technology but more about finding the right business case and space where this unit can run in real time and at real scale.”
How do AVs work?
The autonomous tractors are supported by a multitude of equipment, including lidar (light detection and ranging) sensors, high-definition cameras, GPS, and 5G and wi-fi connectivity. These mean the vehicle’s location can be tracked, with accuracy to within a centimetre. They are also fitted with a remote operation and monitoring solution and a has low-latency stable communications in 4G and 5G environments, cyber security, and AI assist functions for remote operators. It is a remote control solution that integrally monitors, operates, and manages the operation of multiple units of various mobilities.
Different levels of autonomy
Most driverless vehicle deployments today start at Level 3 of autonomous driving. This is where the vehicles can handle certain driving tasks autonomously, such as route-following and obstacle detection, but still require human intervention when faced with complex or unexpected situations. At this level there is still an attendant physically required onboard for this purpose. Level 4 autonomy is a higher degree of automation where vehicles can operate independently in predefined environments or scenarios without human intervention. Instead, they can be remotely supervised or even just monitored from a control centre. From a commercial standpoint, this is where it gets most interesting. At Level 4, airports can deploy larger fleets, increase or decrease operations quicker and easier, address any labour shortages, and/or re-focus humans on higher-value tasks. TLD and EasyMile are leading the market on this, with the majority of their current deployments either already or soon to be, at Level 4.