Summer 2023

Electric, remote-controlled tugs offer an alternative

A TowFLEXX TF5 handles a Bombardier Global 6000 – with just a single operator

Visbek, Germany-headquartered TowFLEXX offers a different sort of option for moving aircraft on an airfield ramp or within aircraft hangars. Its small, electric tow tractors are ideal for manoeuvring smaller aircraft of up to 86 tonnes in confined areas, but the company is also now looking to offer tugs for bigger aircraft that would include commercial narrowbody jets

TowFLEXX is not a new company. It has been operating for more than 20 years and has an interesting history. It was established by Hanns Schickling, who set up the company to operate under the brand SchleppMAXXE; this was changed to TowFLEXX in 2017 to appeal to a more international market, explains current chief operating officer Steffen Hake. TowFLEXX’s current CEO is Hanns’ son, Axel, who took over the reins in 2018.

Hanns Schickling was already in business – in the furniture business in fact, and one of his products was a patented desk that moved up and down by means of an electric motor. He also happened to have his own aircraft, and he wanted an alternative to manual pushbacks of the aeroplane. He saw the possibility of electric machines that would move his aircraft without any anyone needing to break sweat, and the idea for what would become TowFLEXX and its electric tow tractors was born.

The first such unit was manufactured some two decades ago, as today in Visbek, and was designed for moving small, piston-powered aeroplanes, but the portfolio and the machines’ capability have developed significantly since. TowFLEXX’s tug variants – apart from the original ones all are towbarless – can today handle a wide range of aircraft, ranging from small aircraft and turboprops right up to 86-tonne business/cargo jets.

A 360° turntable manoeuvring capability offers a unique option for turning an aircraft on the spot that is ideal for those operating in confined areas looking to avoid any possibility of ‘hangar rash’ (damage-causing collisions).

All TowFLEXX’s tow tractors are fully electric, without any hydraulic mechanism. This keeps maintenance requirements down and avoids fluid leakages, Hake points out.

The larger units are remote-controlled, a development that dates back to about 2010, when the company designed its first such unit for the Swiss military.

A US subsidiary operating out of Pennsylvania was established about eight years ago and the family furniture business even still exists, though as an entirely separate entity.

Demonstrating capability
TowFLEXX demonstrated its TF5 tow tractor at the recent inter airport Southeast Asia (IASEA) international exhibition alongside its regional distributor, Sanxing Pte Ltd. Representatives of the company received some good, useful feedback on the model, says Hake, as well as meeting with potential new buyers. Indeed, “It was a great success to be there in person,” he declares.

The TF5 can tow aircraft of up to 60 tonnes maximum take-off weight (MTOW), its smaller TF1, 2, 3 and 4 models being able to handle smaller aircraft of 2, 4, 9 and 14 tonnes MTOW respectively.

But TowFLEXX has big plans to handle bigger aircraft. It recently developed the HD190 model specifically for the US Air Force, which wanted it to tow C130 Hercules aircraft. Moreover, because the HD190 can be palletised and carried on board a C130, the unit is eminently suitable for out-of-area, remote deployments.

Crucially, TowFLEXX is working on a slightly bigger version of the HD190 that will be applicable to the civilian market and for handling narrowbody commercial jets. This would significantly expand the company’s target market away from military users and from civilian fixed-base operators (FBOs), maintenance, repair and overhaul (MROs) companies and corporate flight departments to commercial airlines and handlers/ground service providers (GSPs).

Going electric

Demand for electric tow tractors is increasing quickly and Hake sees no reason why this trend won’t continue in the future.

“Environmental sustainability is now so key, in this industry as in so many others,” he says. “We want to contribute with sustainable machines for a greener future.”

TowFLEXX has heard from both current and potential customers of the significance they attach to environmentally friendly GSE, not least in meetings with individuals at the IASEA event in Singapore earlier this year.

On the subject of sustainability, TowFLEXX now also offers a solar-charging option for its electric tugs. A box fitted with solar panels can provide recharge capability for its tow tractors right on the ramp while being utilised as a garage.

Meanwhile, there is also growing interest in the value of remote-controlled tugs, Hake continues. These can significantly reduce manpower requirements, he advises, pointing by way of example to a customer who used to require between eight and 10 people to move military F-16 fighters into and out of a hangar, while the use of a remote-controlled tug has reduced the necessary manpower to just three.

Remote operation of a tug also enables the operator to stand back from the tow operation and ensure that there is minimal possibility of collision between an aircraft and ground equipment or infrastructure.

Remote-controlled tow operations can be supported by the capability that TowFLEXX has developed in collaboration with Hamburg, Germany-based Evitado Technologies, a specialist in 3D LIDAR (light detection and ranging) technology. With a virtual map of an operating environment such as a hangar programmed into the memory of a TowFLEXX tug, such a unit equipped with LIDAR capability can automatically slow and then stop when the possibility of a collision with a ground obstacle arises.

LIDAR cameras have already been fitted to a TowFLEXX TF5 to demonstrate the feasibility and value of the system.

TowFLEXX has been working with Evitado on this capability for two years now, and the former is in discussions with customers about the value of the technology. It represents an initial but important step on the road towards autonomous GSE operations, Hake argues.