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Baggage dollies, shuttle buses and even snow ploughs are among the ever-growing list of autonomous vehicles being trialled at airports across the world, writes Joe Bates.

The interest in the potential use of autonomous vehicles at airports is growing with a host of individual trials taking place across the world as the industry seeks to discover the value of the introduction of intelligent, self-driving buses, trucks and other pieces of equipment.

IATA certainly believes that there is scope for the introduction of autonomous vehicles (AVs) at airports, citing 40 potential examples ranging from baggage vehicles, passenger load bridges and maintenance trucks to aircraft tugs.

While Dr Graeme Smith, the CEO of UK firm Oxbotica, a specialist in software that enables vehicles to run autonomously without reliance on GPS or any other technology outside the vehicle, says: “Airports offer an incredibly interesting domain for our autonomous driving software.

“There is a huge diversity of vehicles, each with a very specific mission. The challenge of choreographing all of the activity around an individual plane, or in support of airport operations, is immense.”

Benefits of the use of autonomous vehicles to the aviation industry could include the potential reduction in the amount of support vehicles required at airports.

For now, autonomous vehicle testing continues at airports across the world, with the latest and, in some cases ongoing trials, at London Heathrow, Brussels South Charleroi, Dallas/Fort Worth, Winnipeg and Christchurch airports under the spotlight in this article.

Baggage dollies at LHR

AV specialist, Aurrigo, claims to come up with a new way of transporting luggage around airports, citing the successful trial of the world’s first automated baggage dolly at London’s Heathrow Airport as an example of just what can be achieved.

The company was approached by International Airlines Group (IAG) to use its driverless expertise to develop the world’s first autonomous baggage carrying dolly.

The trial (pictured above) started in March and has seen an existing dolly converted using LIDAR and GPS technology into a self-driving, electric vehicle that promises to increase the speed of loading and unloading luggage at airports throughout the world.

Working with British Airways (BA), the adapted dolly has been moving around Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport and is now also operating in the baggage handling area.

Designed, developed and manufactured at Aurrigo’s advanced engineering centre in Coventry, the firm will now embark on a global marketing programme to talk to the world’s airports and airlines about retrofitting existing dollies to make them fully autonomous.

It also plans exploring production of a new range of super lightweight versions for extended operational performance.

“Until you have seen it first-hand, it’s difficult to explain how big an operation it is moving bags around an airport. In Terminal 5 alone, BA operates around 900 dollies,” explains Aurrigo’s operations director, Richard Fairchild.

“The current method is to have one manually driven tug towing three dollies behind. It can’t move until they are all full, which means there are a lot of empty dollies waiting around.

“What IAG wanted to do was look at an alternative solution and that’s where we came in, using knowledge gained from our hugely successful PodZero passenger carrying vehicle to turn a standard dolly into a self-driving vehicle capable of moving bags from the baggage hall to the aircraft stand.

“Better still, this means that each dolly can move on its own and doesn’t need to wait for all three to be loaded, providing greater flexibility and speed of loading, not to mention reducing the need to maintain such a huge fleet of dollies and tugs. A massive win-win for airports and airlines.”

Aurrigo and IAG are said to be “extremely pleased” with the initial results and are looking at ways where they can roll this technology out so that it becomes an integral part of any ‘future airport’.


Our friends electric

Brussels South Charleroi Airport trialled Flibco’s electric self-driving shuttle bus, the NAVYA, in early September as it looks at potential new solutions for transporting transit passengers between its two terminals.

The 15-passenger capacity vehicle has a top speed of 20 kilometres per hour and, if adopted, would be used to “improve the traveller experience” by ferrying connecting passengers between Terminals 1 and 2.

Airport CEO, Philippe Verdonck, says: “We are always looking for innovative ideas and a quick, efficient solution designed to link up our two terminals. Over time, transit flights will increase, which is why we are looking at the self-driving solution offered by Flibco.com. In addition, in its capacity as an electric vehicle, the NAVYA is environmentally friendly and meets our environmental requirements.”

Otto the snowplough

Winnipeg Richardson International Airport in Canada is home to ‘Otto’, the first autonomous snow plough in North America.

The plough is the result of a partnership with Manitoba companies Northstar Robotics Inc and Airport Technologies Inc (ATI), and is able to clear snow by following pre-determined routes.

It will, however, only be used in “less complex areas” of the airport while further research and development takes place.

Otto is able to operate autonomously using Northstar Robotics technology while the plough itself is equipped with 3D LIDAR and RADAR that can sense its surroundings and detect obstacles.

In addition, Otto is equipped with a fault tolerant wireless emergency stop system, a further safety enhancement.

“Launching North America’s first autonomous snowplough is a great achievement for Winnipeg Richardson International Airport,” said Barry Rempel, president and CEO of Winnipeg Airports Authority.

“Our success is a direct result of bringing together partners who are committed to lead transportation innovation and growth.”

While Shawn Schaerer, president and founder of Northstar Robotics, noted: “Autonomous technology is changing how we work. It is exciting to partner with companies that are ready to adapt and pioneer this cutting-edge technology.”

Baggage vehicle trial at DFW

Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) has become the first US gateway to trial Vanderlande’s autonomous FLEET baggage handling vehicles.

In DFW’s case, the airport is using the innovative technology to help its customers make more seamless transfers in the re-check area in Terminal D.

The first of its kind robotic system can handle nearly 450 bags per hour and is being tested with transfer passengers who arrive from international flights and connect through DFW.

“DFW is testing the process to see how we might provide our customers with a more seamless journey using the award-winning technology within our current baggage infrastructure, and integrating automation for efficiency,” says Khaled Naja, DFW’s executive vice president of infrastructure and development.

“As we go through the pilot programme, DFW will evaluate this new technology and assess potential applications of robots and autonomous vehicles at different points within the airport.”

Vanderlande’s executive vice president for airports, Andrew Manship, enthuses: “This particular application is both exciting and challenging for us, because FLEET will be working in a passenger area.

“Vanderlande believes FLEET aligns with the airport’s vision, because they have a strong commitment to improving the passenger experience, as well as showcasing the latest innovations.”

Christchurch’s Smart Shuttles

Autonomous vehicles are part of Christchurch Airport’s long-term vision for the future and, in part, explains why the New Zealand gateway has been experimenting with driverless shuttles for the past two years.

The airport is hosting New Zealand’s first trial of an autonomous vehicle on its private roads, and recently introduced the first Kiwi made Smart Shuttle (pictured above) to the trial.

In the latest trial in June, passengers had the opportunity to enjoy a quick ride around the terminal’s forecourt in the 15 person capacity Smart Shuttle, which incorporates the guidance system technologies of local company HMI Technologies.

Airport CEO, Malcolm Johns, says: “This vehicle is autonomous, electric and has been 3D printed – in fact, it’s currently the world’s largest 3D-printed vehicle. We will continue testing and learning to understand its capabilities and possible applications on our campus.”

The airport’s interest in new technology has also led it to provide logistics support and air space to allow Zephyr Airworks to test the world’s first self-piloted air taxi, Cora, in Canterbury, as well as developing Virtual Reality (VR) training for its firefighters.


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