The rise of autonomous ground vehicles in airports

As part of a research project investigating new airport maintenance solutions, Swedish technology company Semcon is currently developing an autonomous tractor to keep runway edge lights clear of snow. The technology has now been tested for the first time at Örnsköldsvik Airport, alongisde other solutions using drones, automatic mowing and friction measurement systems.

The Autonomous Vehicles for AirPorts (AVAP) research project is a collaborative project that aims to demonstrate how vehicle automation can sefely help to reduce costs, while making airport operations more efficient. Crucially for smaller airports, this technology will enable them to stay open during heavy snow and reduce delays for passengers.

Anne Piejgsa, technical project manager at Semcon, reveals that “our part of the project involves developing an autonomous tractor designed to keep runway edge lights clear of snow. This may not seem like much, but the runway gets closed down if 15% of the lights are non-operational, and this causes significant delays and costs. But more seriously, this presents major safety risks as well.”

Snow clearing at airport is vital. To enable flights to take off and land safely runways must be completely clear of snow. For many airports the current solution is to have staff on standby who can come in and clear the snow as and when they are needed.

“One of the problems with clearing snow around runway edge lights is that a great deal of precision is required on surfaces that are not always smooth,” offers Piegsa. “This is time-consuming work that can be streamlined by means of our automated solution. This will also free up staff capacity, allowing them to work on other safety-related tasks that are not suitabel for automation,” she continues.

The tractor used for the project is a Lundberg 6250, which is around 2.4m tall and 5m long. It weighs just over 6 tonnes. Equipped with sensors to scan its environment, the tractor has also been fitted with a computer for intelligent control and managmeent of the commands sent to it. It is given a ploughing task by an operator via 4G and then calculates how to complete the task, constantly communicating its position and status. Air traffic controllers can also monitor and communicate with the vehicle.

The control system used was developed by Yeti Snow Technology, co-owned by Semcon, Husqvarna Group and Øveraasen, and is currently undergoing testing as part of projects involving autonomous snowploughs at an airport for Norwegian airport operator Avinor.

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