Autonomous vehicles gain traction in ground support

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Autonomous vehicles are no longer a futuristic concept. They are there and prove to be very useful in various industry operations. Regular use of these vehicles in airport ground operations is only a matter of time – and it will likely be sooner rather than later. That doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges.

The need for more universal communication standards and more reliable transmission technologies to support telematics, as well as roadside considerations are among these challenges. Yet, there remains great potential for improving ground support operations and related benefits using autonomous vehicles.

Understanding the current state of autonomous vehicle technologies and how they will further optimize ground handling operations is important for airlines, airports and ground handling professionals.

Optimization software helping to drive autonomous vehicles

At the heart of successful autonomous vehicles will be advanced optimization software to support operations ranging from autonomous bag handling, gangway docking, passenger and cabin crew bus steering and truck refueling.

The optimization software will be instrumental in optimizing personnel and ground support equipment (GSE) in aircraft and passenger management. By leveraging this software, which incorporates artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and proprietary algorithms, we will begin to see autonomous staff and GSEs performing many of the same tasks.

This is becoming increasingly valuable as labor shortages, due to the low-paying work and physical demands of these tasks, continue to grow.

The optimization of software-driven autonomous vehicles will also prove an asset in mitigating safety issues resulting from human error and negligence. Another advantage of autonomous vehicles in some applications is that unlike humans who require certain skills and regular practice to perform certain functions, autonomous vehicles do not. In addition, they are available 24/7/365, the only exception being when they are serviced and/or their batteries are replaced.

There is still some way to go to take full advantage of autonomous vehicles, which will require industry collaboration and greater advancements to address diverse technology and infrastructure needs.

The work to do

While the telematics used for autonomous GSEs will help provide an increased level of data transparency and situational awareness (for example, providing the estimated time of arrival of wheelchair passengers at a connecting gate, or for connecting baggage journeys), there are still obstacles to overcome to achieve this result.

For example, while some software solutions are relatively independent of hardware and transmission technologies, many are not. In the field of telematics, non-motorized units remain a problem because they require high transmission quality with low energy. Power-efficient transmission technologies such as LoRa, the physical (wireless) layer modulation that creates the long-range communications link or LoRaWAN, the medium access control layer protocol built on top of the LoRa modulation, have not proven to be very reliable in the airport setting where there are many moving planes and a massive steel structure for the GSE and trolleys.

What is now preferred to increase the reliability of information transmission are mesh networks, in which a wide variety of objects can communicate with each other, bridge long distances and increase location accuracy by comparing different information of position.

Additional fixed objects at precisely defined positions can also significantly increase accuracy. This makes it possible, for example, to determine the exact position of a catering truck on a loading dock. However, there is still the problem of the truck’s GPS signal not being accurate enough, especially near buildings or under roofs.

Mesh networks, while certainly offering a better solution, remain a difficult option because they can only be achieved with many devices widely spread across the deck; a setup that many find difficult.

Another area that needs to be addressed in terms of infrastructure is that of creating an environment where conventional and autonomous vehicles can travel safely without interruption.

While many production plants have created this environment, the airport setting may require the construction of decoupled roadways to accommodate, for example, shuttle buses or the allocation of baggage from baggage halls to transit areas.

As the performance and flexibility of autonomous vehicles increase, the need for conventional and autonomous vehicles to share roads will increase, but eventually become more seamless.

Autonomous vehicles and workforce challenges

Without a doubt, autonomous vehicles can play a major role in both supporting workers and solving labor shortages, including those caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. They can be essential to help sustain GSE operations in the post-pandemic environment.

There is no doubt that autonomous vehicles can perform a wide range of tasks efficiently. For example, passengers with reduced mobility can be cared for by airport staff as well as autonomous wheelchairs.

Through a disciplined approach combining both personnel and autonomous vehicles, numerous benefits in terms of productivity, safety and passenger experience can be achieved. When combined with the latest sensor, 360 degree camera vision (i.e. for collision detection and avoidance, geolocation for operations in approved and whitelisted areas , increased environmental awareness) and light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technologies, optimal results can be achieved.

Potential accidents on the airfield or in the terminal building can be avoided more effectively, especially when supported by optimization software, enhanced by machine learning, including “Federated Learning” in which part of a GSE fleet learns something new and this knowledge is automatically transferred to other autonomous ones. Vehicles.

Bridging the gap between man and machine

By aligning both human and autonomous vehicle operations, ground support operations can be greatly improved. Driven by advanced technologies, human resources can be optimally managed, communications around flight updates such as gate and GSE dispatch improved, and the passenger experience made more predictable and seamless. .

Through better use of autonomous vehicles/GSE (e.g. baggage handling, pushbacks, GPUs, bobtails, etc.), reduced reliance on labor and lower transportation costs can be achieved. Safety and security goals can be better achieved through the wider application of safe self-driving shuttle technology.

Ultimately, the expectations of all stakeholders – airlines, airports, ground handlers and above all passengers – will be well served when autonomous vehicles are deployed more widely and more effectively in ground handling operations. .

Paving the way for autonomous vehicles

According to Allied Market Research, autonomous vehicle technology was estimated at $54 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow tenfold to $557 billion in 2026. To achieve this, steps will be needed in key areas of infrastructure, regulation and public services. -private cooperation.

For airport ground support operations, improved communications and telematics systems will be essential. New standards and regulations will also be needed to address safety concerns, data analysis, record keeping and vehicle testing, among other requirements.

Governments and the aviation industry will need to work together to ensure that the highest standards of operation, maintenance and monitoring of autonomous vehicles in the airport environment prevail.


Michael Reinkober is Product Manager GS RealTime Staff and Equipment at INFORM GmbH, one of the world’s leading providers of intelligent optimization solutions for airlines, airports and ground handling providers.

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