Sunday 12th July 2020

Airports are miniature smart cities where autonomous equipment will prosper

Published on April 17th, 2019

Airports have, over time, evolved into more than just transit hubs, and many major airports today bear a striking resemblance to self-contained cities. As Johan Fagerberg, co-founder of Berg Insight says, these microcosms feature everything from restaurants and retail outlets to waste collection and traffic management, while at the same time employing high-level security practices.

From an IoT technology standpoint, airports can make extensive use of connected infrastructure and processes, emulating that of a full-scale city – a smart city in miniature. Moreover, as an analogy to the fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0) driven by the Internet of Things (IoT), creating intelligent networks and connecting machines and systems, the concept of Aviation 4.0 has emerged. This entails a greater degree of automation, digitisation and data exchange in the aviation industry specifically.

The aviation ecosystem includes a range of stakeholders where the main ones are the airports, airlines and service providers. The service providers include a wide range of players involved in diverse activities such as catering, maintenance and ground handling. The latter refers to servicing an aircraft while it is on the ground and comprises all services required by an aircraft between landing and take-off.

Ground handling typically involves the use of a number of different specialised assets such as ground support equipment (GSE) including powered as well as unpowered assets. From the perspective of slim-margin ground handling operations, costs can be minimised by employing innovative concepts such as GSE pooling which reduces capital expenditure and increases utilisation rates by sharing equipment.

Johan Fagerberg

Even greater potential for cost savings is related to opportunities to decrease the reliance on ground support personnel, which represents a major part of the total costs in the labour-intense ground handling service sector. People tend to cost more than fuel and maintenance, which makes a strong case for unmanned systems, including autonomous equipment and vehicles in the aviation sector. Autonomous vehicles, such as self-driving or driverless cars, is a topic of much debate in recent time.

Closed-off sites such as airports, which are private environments that largely set their own rules and regulations, may very well prove to be ideal early adopters when it comes to deploying these technologies. This is because the societal effects typically are more limited at the same time as the overall complexity is lower in a controlled environment. Implementations ranging from semi-autonomous and remotely controlled GSEs all the way up to fully autonomous operation on airports are thus expected to become increasingly prevalent in the coming years.

Certain use cases such as semi-autonomous pushbacks, autonomous aircraft taxiing, driverless shuttles and baggage tractors, and automated snow removal have already been demonstrated in airport settings, incorporating relevant concepts such as vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications, obstacle detection and anti-collision software. Several initiatives of this kind involving autonomous vehicles are currently ongoing.

Companies at the forefront of automation technology, such as Amazon with its automated warehouses and Toyota Industries which recently acquired Vanderlande, may be able to successfully apply their competencies in this space and compete head-to-head with incumbents. By mastering high-precision manoeuvring procedures, tech-savvy frontrunners can pave the way for further applications in the aviation sector, gradually making a greater share of autonomous operation feasible within automated runway maintenance, baggage and cargo handling, and beyond.

The author is Johan Fagerberg, co-founder of Berg Insight.

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