Summer 2023

Greener tugs and tractors

Greener tugs and tractors

The drive to battery-powered GSE continues, nowhere more so than in the field of those pushback tugs and baggage and cargo tractors that are a regular feature of airport aprons. Manufacturers are responding to customer demands…

One of the specialists in autonomous GSE is Coventry, UK-headquartered Aurrigo. Its background is in the automotive sector, an industry in which it remains active, but it established an aviation technology division in 2019 to design and develop a range of on-airport autonomous vehicles, and it now offers a suite of products that include its battery-powered autonomous Auto-Dolly and Auto-DollyTug as well as its Auto-Sim airport simulation software.

Aurrigo’s prototype Auto-Dolly baggage transport vehicle underwent intensive testing as a proof of concept at London Heathrow International Airport’s Terminal 5 in 2019. Perhaps partly off the back of that, it also subsequently attracted the attention of Changi Airport Group (CAG), operator of Singapore Changi Airport, a Southeast Asian hub gateway and perhaps one of the world’s most technologically savvy airports.

Miles Garner, Aurrigo’s sales and marketing director, recalls that CAG and Aurrigo agreed two pieces of work – testing on the latter’s autonomous baggage unit at Changi and also exploitation of its Auto-Sim simulation tool to analyse possible layouts of the gateway’s planned Terminal 5, which is expected to be operational by the mid-2030s.

Phase 1 of the trials of the Auto-Dolly at Changi saw the battery-powered baggage transporter carry a ULD from the baggage conveyor area and move autonomously along Changi airside roadways.

Also forming part of the tests has been Aurrigo’s Auto-DollyTug, which can not only carry a standard ULD, like the Auto-Dolly, but also tow three conventional dollies, each with their own ULD. It has the capacity to carry 1.5 tons and tow a further 7.5 tons.

Like its sister vehicle, the Auto-DollyTug is entirely electric and autonomous, though it could be manually operated if desired.

According to CAG, the recently completed Phase 1 trials “effectively demonstrated” the ability of the equipment to travel autonomously along airside roadways, as well as within the baggage handling area.

The potential of the Auto-Dolly and its sister unit, the Auto-DollyTug, is significant for an airport operator such as CAG, which is on the lookout for ways to support a labour force that was impacted by Covid and the drift of actual or potential employees away to other professions.

Changi’s Terminal 5 Specialised Systems (T5SS) team is working closely with Aurrigo on these autonomous baggage tractor movement trials, choosing this particular airside operations task to concentrate upon because this function requires the highest number of airside drivers.

“Autonomous solutions also offer opportunities to improve baggage delivery efficiency, which in turn, enhances passenger service levels,” CAG says.

The airport operator signed a multi-year agreement with Aurrigo (announced on 28 October 2022) for the next phase of development of the latter’s Auto-Dolly at the gateway. Then in February this year it was confirmed that Aurrigo had agreed a multi-year partnership with CAG that “provides an opportunity for the further development of Aurrigo’s autonomous solutions at Changi Airport”. It also allows Aurrigo to demonstrate and showcase the technology to other airports and stakeholders.

Aurrigo currently maintains a team of eight at Singapore Changi, primarily local engineers and hardware or software developers.

The autonomous baggage tractor trials at Changi are being partially funded by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) through its Aviation Development Fund (ADF), which supports initiatives to improve productivity in Singapore’s aviation sector through the use of innovative solutions.

Phase 2
Following the successful conclusion of Phase 1 testing and the signing of the multi-year partnership agreement earlier this year, Changi’s Terminal 2 is now hosting Phase 2 trials that take in a greater level of complexity; the vehicle is being deployed up to a simulated aircraft stand and an actual decommissioned aircraft located in a secluded airside area.

Benefiting from its small footprint and tight turning radius, the Auto-Dolly can manoeuvre itself closely and precisely next to an aircraft. And because it can transfer a ULD directly to and from a loader, the normal process of intermediate transfer of a ULD using a transporter can be eliminated. Changi is the first airport in the world to test the Aurrigo equipment’s ability to perform autonomous loading and unloading of ULDs at an aircraft stand.

As a safeguard during the trials, a safety operator is currently being deployed on both the Auto-Dolly and Auto-DollyTug at all times, in the event that manual control needs to be restored at any time. The next step is to trial the Auto-Dolly and Auto-DollyTug without a safety operator involved.

According to CAG: “Observations and data from the trials will help Changi to refine and sharpen the concept of operations in the push towards the airport’s vision of the future, where a combination of multi-skilled airside workers will be augmented by different types of autonomous vehicles to deliver seamless operations.”

Electric and autonomous

While CAG has been keen to stress the value of autonomous GSE in an aviation sector that is currently hampered by labour shortages, Garner also points to the value of Aurrigo’s aviation vehicles all being battery-powered.

In a world where the issue of sustainability has become so much more important, those airport operators and ground service providers looking to switch from diesel to electric might also be attracted to the Aurrigo portfolio of products.

Meanwhile, Garner suggests that the growing appeal of autonomous GSE was further boosted by the Covid crisis, which not only highlighted the value of autonomy when labour is scarce but also created a situation that required all the players in the aviation industry to carefully examine their bottom line and secure all possible cost-saving efficiencies.

Fraport looks at autonomous baggage tractor potential

CAG and London Heathrow are by no means the only air gateways looking at the potential for moving baggage across their facilities by autonomous tractor. Earlier this year, Germany-heaquartered airport operator Fraport trialled an autonomous baggage and cargo tractor at its flagship hub of Frankfurt Airport.

The electric vehicle operated along an 8.2km route within the gateway’s secure airside environment. The aim of the testing was to determine whether – and under what conditions – such an autonomous vehicle might support regular baggage and cargo operations on the apron.

The test route started in the eastern section of Frankfurt Airport’s apron in the baggage handling facility at Terminal 2, before the autonomous vehicle headed south towards what will be the gateway’s future Terminal 3.

According to Fraport, the three different segments of the test route each presented particular challenges, including operating inside the baggage handling facility amongst other traffic and people, as well as in the open where there are few other vehicles.

To ensure results reflected genuine airside operating conditions, the test drives took place both during the day and at night, and in different types of weather.

The vehicle operated at a maximum speed of 13km/h and towed up to three baggage trailers or two large cargo trailers. A safety driver was present at each test drive, able to intervene if required.

Eric Agthe, project manager for process and product development at Fraport, comments: “Autonomous vehicles are a very promising future option for us as an airport operator.” He notes that, while Fraport had previously trialled self-driving vehicles, deployment on the apron on such a long route represented something completely new.

“The fact that we are tackling these kinds of innovative projects, despite the challenging operating conditions, once again emphasises our role as a future-focused company,” he remarks.

A Fraport spokesperson tells Airside that the tests started in February this year and lasted until the end of March. With the trials studying “the operational use-case for baggage transport between terminals”, the specific result that Fraport was looking to confirm was the achievement of “a safe, secure, reliable operation within normal traffic conditions (ie, mixed traffic) within the safety area of Frankfurt Airport at all times”, Fraport says. In addition, the airport operator wanted to assess battery power usage and see whether such units’ “operational integration into current processes” could be easily achieved.

The tractor involved was the Autonom Tract-135 from Charlatte Autonom, the latter having been established in October 2018 as a partnership between Navya, which specialises in the supply of autonomous driving systems, and Charlatte Manutention, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of electric and thermal industrial and airport vehicles. The intention was to develop self-driving tractor solutions for industrial sites and airports.

At Frankfurt, the Tract-135 used a global navigation satellite system (GNSS), light detection and ranging (LIDAR) and 3G/4G data communication to navigate on a pre-programmed map of the test track, moving through several stations along the route.

There was no other party involved in the trials, the project being undertaken under the supervision of the ground handling department of Fraport.

The results of the testing are now being assessed by the airport operator. Fraport is also considering what other forms of GSE might be suitable for autonomous operation in an airport environment, and is of the opinion that autonomous vehicles could provide significant support in daily ground handling operations.

Dennis Stein, vice president division development, logistics, and IT, says: “For Fraport, this project is of high importance because of its potential to facilitate more efficient deployment of staff in the future.

“Due to the size of the airport apron, our employees often have to cover long distances. If parts of these routes could be operated using autonomous vehicles, this would give the Ground Services teams more flexibility to handle flights even more efficiently.”

WFS tests AGV at Barcelona

Elsewhere, Worldwide Flight Services (WFS) – the world’s biggest cargo handler – is currently engaged in proof-of-concept trials for an autonomous vehicle moving cargo between its warehouse and the apron at Josep Tarradellas Barcelona-El Prat Airport in Barcelona, Spain.

The tests form part of a wider programme of collaboration concerning innovation between WFS and Aena, Spain’s national airport operator, which is responsible for 46 airports and two heliports across the country.

The project is said to be aligned with the first automated ground vehicle (AGV) guidelines being developed by IATA’s Ground Operations Automation and Digitization working group (GAD), which WFS has also been participating in.

WFS and Aena are joined in the 10-week trial by other three partners: GSE supplier FASEREK; intralogistics solutions provider MOVVO; and SIMAI, a specialist producer of tow tractors.

The proof-of-concept trial in Barcelona is monitoring the vehicle’s ability to drive smoothly at a constant speed, as well as safety, flexible routing, monitoring and the traceability of the AGV operation. The tow tractor is able to recognise its environment, position itself accurately, detect obstacles and act to allow traffic to pass and to avoid collisions. WFS provided telemetry and the geolocation technology was supplied by XOPS.

The first phase of the Barcelona trial involves cargo transport operations between the WFS cargo terminal and Terminal 1 using a ramp tractor equipped with AGV technology along a planned, point-to-point route of 2,300m.

The trials are scheduled to continue until mid-May.

Says Jordi Campderrós, PMO manager at WFS: “AGV technology is already well-established in other industries. One of our partners, MOVVO, already has different autonomous fleets running, mostly in the automotive industry in Barcelona. Through our test project, WFS will learn about the viability of automated vehicles in a busy airport tarmac environment to help us understand any limitations or challenges we will need to overcome before any future deployment of this technology at airports around the world.

“We have selected Barcelona for this trial because of the progressive approach of Aena to automation and sustainability, and because the perimetral tarmac road linking WFS’s premises and Terminal 1 provides an ideal environment to conduct this assessment.

“Given that WFS handles cargo on board more than 25,000 import and export flights a year at Barcelona, and more than 42,000 flights in Madrid, the future benefits of AGV technology are obvious in terms of productivity gains, safety, and sustainability, and this can ultimately be replicated at airports across the globe.”

Plus, WFS expects to a pilot AGV programme in its cargo warehouse in Barcelona.

Schiphol trials automated buses on the apron

Royal Schiphol Group, operator of Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, future-looking experts nlmtd and transformation and innovation consultancy TNW Programs are this spring collaborating on the trial of self-driving buses at the Dutch capital’s gateway as the first phase of co-operation into further smart and autonomous technology use at Schiphol.

According to Jan Zekveld, head of innovation at Royal Schiphol Group, nlmtd and TNW have extensive in-house expertise and a large, global network of start-ups and innovation partners that Schiphol can draw upon.

Zekveld observes: “We need innovation to achieve our ambition: to become the world’s most sustainable airport. We anticipate that daily operations on Schiphol’s apron will have changed significantly by 2050. Ground-based activities such as baggage transport, passenger transport and aircraft towing will not only be clean, but also smart and autonomous. We have already taken the first steps in this field with TNW and nlmtd.”

Pieter Paul van Oerle, founder of nlmtd partner Ecosystem Orchestration, remarks: “Self-driving buses are a first project we are collaborating on, and after that we will quickly pick up the pace by consistently connecting Schiphol with the best possible partners.”

And Arno Nijhof, director of TNW programs, adds: “Where many companies scale back their innovation efforts in difficult times, Schiphol sees innovation as a solution. We can’t wait to find solutions in the market that enable autonomous transport or make work lighter for employees, and to collaborate with external innovators to improve air quality.”