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We may soon see more driverless vehicles on airport ramps. It's easy to call this a safety risk. It might be. But human drivers have accidents, too.

Nearly 50 years after the first airport automated people mover — that’s transport lingo for a driverless train — debuted at Tampa International, humans still handle most functions on the airfield, such as moving bags, pushing back planes, clearing ice and snow, and driving buses.

Within a decade, that may change. Several companies want to persuade airlines and airports to invest in the next generation of automated vehicles, promising they can reduce costs and boost efficiency, without compromising safety. They’re developing driverless snowplows, baggage tractors, and buses, and some should be ready within three to 10 years.

“It is so much money today to operate with drivers,” said Jérôme Riguad, chief operating officer of the French company Navya, maker of commercial automated vehicles. “It is so much money they want to spend differently. They are pushing very hard to make it work as fast as possible.”

Widespread adoption won’t come this year or next. But while car manufacturers know driverless technology is not ready for major roadways or highways, companies like Navya argue earlier-generation commercial automated vehicles might work better at airports than on regular streets.

Here’s why: Airports are complex, but they’re more controlled environments than a typical roadway. Cars, trucks, and tractors drive at slow speeds — the speed limit at Chicago O’Hare is 20 miles per hour — making high-speed accidents unlikely. Airport vehicles also generally do not change lanes or make advanced maneuvers.

“There is a bit less human decision making on the airfield.” said Jenny Buckley, aviation leader for the Americas at Arup, a consulting firm for airports.

Not everyone is sure this makes sense. Detractors say airports are a dangerous place to try new technology, since a runaway vehicle could collide with an aircraft, causing disaster. They fear an automated vehicle may fail to follow the key rule of airfield driving: Airplanes always have right of way.

“There are safety questions, of course,” Riguad said. “But there is a real benefit in having this technology work and deployed on a larger scale in the very short term. I think it will happen.”

Early Use Cases

No one is suggesting driverless vehicles will be whizzing around every airport next year. But within five years, airports and airlines may decide to invest more aggressively in automation for basic functions that today require considerable human capital.

Already, some airports and airlines are exploring automated (or near automated) technology. Two years ago, British Airways began using electric driverless tugs to push back aircraft at London Heathrow. The new technology has reduced pushback-related delays by about 53 percent, the airport said in a case study last year.

The machines, built by a company called Molotok, require a human — the employee stands by with a remote control — but the airline and airport say the technology reduces worker costs. They also say it’s more precise than a human-driven tug.

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“These Molotok vehicles that we have on the ramp in Heathrow … are pushing the aircraft more efficiently, more safely, giving us more control of the overall operation,” British Airways CEO Alex Cruz said in a recent interview. “That’s having a positive impact on customer service from a punctuality perspective.”

A driverless tug made by Molotok. British Airways is using the technology.

Next, airports could try automated baggage tractors.

Late last year, Navya announced a joint venture with Charlatte Manutention, a maker of airport ground equipment. The two firms have developed a driverless vehicle prototype that can tow luggage carts from the airplane to the terminal.

“It is pretty clear that as soon as we go through the testing phase, the objective of our customers is to deploy large scale as quickly as possible,” Riguad said.

Navya is also developing automated buses for airports. For now, the company is marketing them for regular roadways, betting airports that aren’t large enough for automated people movers will use them to shuttle passengers from terminals to parking lots. The buses can have their own lanes to help with safety.

But in the future, airports may want driverless buses for the airfield to take travelers from remote gates to terminals.

Snowplows are another possibility. Two years ago, Daimler, the truck maker, tested automated plows with Fraport, operator of Frankfurt Airport in Germany. According to Daimler’s corporate blog, the route each plow takes is mapped in advance, and the machines “follow their predefined paths to the letter,” deviating by no more than 3 centimeters.

Airports haven’t rushed to add them, and Daimler declined to comment about its plans. But Paul Drury, digital aviation leader at Arup, said he suspects airports someday will take a serious look at driverless snowplows to help with runway clearing.

“It is a completely different environment compared to the randomness of driving on public roads,” Drury said. “Snowplows on a runway have a very defined perimeter.”

Airports could save significant money on employee costs, too.

“You are never quite sure when snow is going to arrive,” Drury said. “Obviously you have the equipment available but you don’t have snowplow drivers sitting around all day long in winter waiting for snow to come. The most difficult part is, how do you deal with the expense of people waiting to drive snowplows, who are required relatively randomly?”

Not All Airports Ready

As head of Pittsburgh International Airport, Christina Cassotis has heard all the pitches from consultants and companies like Navya and Daimler.

But Cassotis, CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, said the technology she has seen is not yet appropriate for a big airport.

“We are not ready today to go with driverless cars on the ramp,” she said. “We don’t see that opportunity in the very near future.”

The problem, she said, is safety. For example, Cassotis said she fears an airplane might collide with an automated snowplow, with catastrophic results.

Minor collisions can be a problem, too. If a baggage tractor bumps an airplane, the carrier will have to remove it from service for an inspection. Airlines hate to cancel flights for minor accidents.

“I am going to worry about anything on the ramp or the airfield,” Cassotis said. “My first concern is going to be, is this as safe as if a human being were driving it, and was it doing what it needed to do avoid an aircraft incursion?”

Navya’s Riguad knows the argument. He acknowledged airfields present special circumstances. But he noted human drivers also can struggle, damaging airplanes by ramming them with catering trucks, jetways, and tugs. He said he expects technology can adapt and will be at least as safe as humans.

Arup’s Buckley said she agrees. But she said she suspects most early innovation will happen outside the United States, where privately run airports may take more chances.

“The U.S. aviation market is a little more conservative,” Buckley said. “A lot of airports and airlines in the U.S. will tell you that they are not looking to be the first or to be innovative. They will follow once it is proven technology.”

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Tags: airports, automation, driverless cars

Photo credit: The German company Daimler has developed an automated snow plow for airports. It’s seen here in a 2017 test. Daimler

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