In partnership with self-driving software developer Oxbotica, London Gatwick Airport is to become the first airport in the world to trial autonomous vehicles (AVs) to shuttle staff across the airfield.
Gatwick’s 300 airside vehicles are stationary 90% of the time as staff attend to aircraft and passengers, but the new trial of electric-powered self-driving vehicles will soon see workers shuttled between popular locations on the airfield when it starts later this summer.
If successful and scaled up, the pilot project could lead to airfield transport needs being met from a much smaller pool of AVs, removing the need for such large fleets, in turn reducing emissions and saving on costs.
It is hoped that if the technology is proven in an airfield environment, the project may be the precursor to a wide range of other AVs being used at airports, including aircraft push back tugs, passenger load bridges, baggage tugs and transportation buses.
No passengers or aircraft will be involved in this trial, which will be limited to airside roads between the airport’s North and South terminals. The tests will be run using Oxbotica’s software that enables vehicles to run autonomously without reliance on GPS or any other technology outside the vehicle. The company’s vehicles are also currently involved in other trials on UK roads and Oxbotica is currently developing a fleet of AVs that will soon be running between Oxford and London.
Data collected from the Gatwick pilot study will demonstrate that AVs can work safely on an airfield, which is a complex environment with a wide range of different vehicle types moving in many directions both on and off road systems. The data will be used in dialog with the UK Department for Transport (DfT), Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and others. Global insurance company XL Catlin is also interested in being part of the trial to learn more on autonomous airfield vehicles from an insurance perspective.
“If this trial proves successful, then in the future we could have an Uber-like service operating across the airfield, which staff can hail as and when they need to travel,” explained Cathal Corcoran, chief information officer for Gatwick Airport.
“This trial is just the start and much more research will be needed, but ultimately this could be the start of widespread use of autonomous vehicles on airfields across the world.”
Dr Graeme Smith, CEO of Oxbotica, commented, “Airports offer an incredibly interesting domain for our autonomous driving software. The challenge of choreographing all of the activity around an individual plane, or in support of airport operations, is immense and we look forward to working closely with Gatwick on this initial pilot.”