Bringing high-tech to pushback

posted on 2nd October 2019
Bringing high-tech to pushback

Airport pushback tugs and tractors is perhaps not the industry sector best known for rapid technological change, but high-tech advances are certainly finding their way into this facet of airside operations – not least in terms of electric power

Earlier this summer, JBT AeroTech’s GSE Business Unit welcomed more than 50 customers from countries around the world to an Open House at its Orlando, Florida, manufacturing facility. The event, held on 8 May consisted of factory tours, product training, operational demonstrations and static displays of more than 20 pieces of JBT GSE. One of the priorities of the day was to demonstrate the innovative technologies that JBT is bringing to the area of pushback operations.

On display were a range of JBT’s newer products, namely:

1) LEKTRO towbarless, electric tow vehicles. New to JBT is the LEKTRO family of tow vehicles. JBT acquired LEKTRO in February of this year and has been working to introduce LEKTRO’s class of electric, towbarless vehicle to the JBT family of customers.

According to Lee Coon, JBT’s vice president sales and customer care, the process of assimilating LEKTRO”s electric tow tugs into the JBT portfolio is ongoing. “We have integrated our engineering and sales teams with LEKTRO and are now working closely with them to identify and execute best practices in their manufacturing facility,” he says.

Having LEKTRO products within its own portfolio also opens up new markets for JBT. In fact, LEKTRO has opened the general aviation market to JBT to include fixed base operators (FBOs), Coon notes.

2) The JBT B950 diesel pushback tractor

3) The JBT Ranger electric loader

4) The JBT Commander 30i electric loader

5) The Jetaire M60. JBT’s family of GSE has expanded to include a diesel-powered, pre-conditioned air unit for narrowbody aircraft. Coon informs: “The M60 is a new product that we are actively promoting to the market. As a testimonial, we actually sold the M60 unit during our Open House to a customer. JBT has other pre-conditioned air units available and will continue to explore new products where opportunities make sense.”

6) The Tempest i de-icer. JBT’s Tempest i has been redesigned to reduce fluid use, improve access to service points and maintainability, and improve overall reliability and up-time.

Plus, as noted above, JBT demonstrated a range of new technologies that are increasing its various equipment’s capabilities. These were:

1) iOPS GSE software. For over a decade, JBT has used its iOPS product to monitor the status and faults on gate equipment such as passenger boarding bridges. Now, the manufacturer is expanding this capability to include other GSE so that iOPS can monitor faults, track vehicle locations, establish geo-fencing limits, ensure speed control and more.

2) Loader auto-docking. JBT is currently trialling loader auto-docking technology. Using various sensors and sophisticated programming, the loader auto-docking technology is designed to enhance the safe, damage-free docking of cargo loaders to aircraft and their return to a designated start position.

3) De-icer simulators. JBT demonstrated de-icing simulators that use virtual reality to train operators and drivers, both singly and as a team.

The supplier is continuing to look at these and other new areas of development. Says Coon: “We have completed rounding out our tractor product line and are working on different diesel engine and electric power options, as well as supporting our iOPS and auto-docking technologies.”

Looking back on the Open House, which JBT schedules as and when required, he adds: “The customers received our electric GSE equipment with great interest and encouraged JBT to offer electric power on a broader range of products.

“Customers were also very positive about our cargo loader auto-docking demonstration, iOPS software for asset monitoring and training simulators. We will continue to innovate these products, services and technologies.”

Is the future electric?

JBT is far from the only tug manufacturer using technological breakthroughs to improve its products’ performance. Kalmar, Sweden-headquartered Kalmar Motor AB, a well-established manufacturer of both conventional and towbarless tractors, is celebrating a number of anniversaries this year.

In fact, 2019 is the 50th anniversary of the company, the 30th anniversary of its towbarless tractors going into operational service, and the 10th anniversary of its lithium ion-powered towbarless tractors going into operation; in relation to the last of these, its first three lithium-ion TBL 50s were delivered to SAS back in 2009.

It might be one of the oldest airport tug producers in the business, but Kalmar is not sitting still. While continuing to offer a wide range of diesel-powered tugs, it has particularly specialised of late in electric and hybrid vehicles; in fact Kalmar is, says technical sales manager Sean Bryan, the industry’s only manufacturer of a full range of electric tugs for all aircraft types.

That emphasis is also reflected in the company’s current production priorities. Between 30 and 40% of its manufacturing capacity is now devoted to electric units, both towbarless and conventional types; and Bryan can see a day in the not-too-distant future when Kalmar will devote itself entirely to electric or hybrid models.

That would be a reflection of the way the industry is heading, he believes. The necessary charging infrastructure is starting to be introduced at airports across the world, as airports and handlers sign up to the benefits of electric drive despite initial concerns.

By way of evidence, Bryan points to examples such as Hong Kong International Airport’s new Midfield Terminal that will be served entirely by green GSE. Already served mostly by electric vehicles, HKIA operator Airport Authority Hong Kong has been so keen to ‘go green’ with GSE at the new area that it has bought its own electric GSE and leases it out to handlers operating in the Midfield development.

Elsewhere, Beijing’s latest airport, Daxing – scheduled to open later this year – is also emphasising the importance of green GSE, Bryan notes. It is by no means just in the Far East that such prioritisation of electric GSE is to be found, of course, and the general trend is swelling the order books of electric GSE manufacturers such as Kalmar; indeed, right now meeting demand within the requested delivery times is more of a problem than attracting new orders, he says.

Kalmar is ramping up production as fast as it can. It recently opened a new manufacturing facility in Kalmar. Located just a couple of miles from the company’s pre-existing production facility, it has much more space both inside and outside for manufacturing and testing.

Despite the full order books, Kalmar is always looking for ways to grow its product and service offering. One method is collaboration with other GSE manufacturers. Two years ago, Danish GSE producer Vestergaard purchased 25% of Kalmar, adding its own expertise to the corporate mix.

Both companies are family-owned, Bryan notes, and they can work together on such elements as spare parts delivery and after-sales service in various markets around the world. The partnership “works really well for us”, he says.

Bryan can point to a range of recent new orders to demonstrate the popularity of the Kalmar portfolio – and of its high-tech advances. For instance, the first FB 600 conventional fully electric tractor has been sold, the 60-ton unit going to Scandinavian handler Aviator.

Kalmar’s FB 150 electric tractor has just penetrated the Indian market, the 12-ton unit destined for handler Celebi’s operations in Bangalore – an important development, given that India is not perhaps the first market one thinks of when considering green, electric GSE.

Air New Zealand has signed a contract for a further seven Kalmar Motor Electric TBL 190s. Those new towbarless tugs will take the Air NZ TBL 190 fleet up to 10 vehicles. The TBL 190 can tow aircraft of size right up to A340-600.

And, in the Middle East, dnata has signed up for a fully electric TBL 800 towbarless tractor.

Clearly, the handlers are now beginning to see the benefits of electric tugs, Bryan says, just as the airports are. Ground service providers have long been acquiring smaller GSE such as belt loaders and baggage tractors in electric variants, but now they are considering the larger tugs in their greener forms, too.

Why? Because the required recharging infrastructure is now starting to be put in place, Bryan points out. Plus, while the initial cost of an electric tug might be higher than its diesel equivalent, there are significant cost-savings – perhaps up to 80% – in through-life operating costs, he insists.

Clearly, he believes, going electric is not just a trend: it is an unstoppable force.

All-electric and remote

One tug manufacturer has chosen to dedicate itself to small, remote-controlled, electric aircraft tugs.

Krefeld, Germany-headquartered Mototok’s tugs have a very particular selling point. Able to manoeuvre easily in small spaces and capable of towing aircraft of up to B737 and A320 family size, they are remote-controlled and – being fully electric – very ‘green’.

The company says that its tugs have low operating and maintenance costs. Available in different sizes and specifications, they offer a very different option to larger, manually operated diesel pushbacks.

Mototok made a big breakthrough in the market when it sold 28 Spacer 8600 units to British Airways (BA) for its narrowbody pushbacks at London Heathrow’s Terminal 5 (T5). Since delivery in January 2018, a total of 100,000 pushbacks have now been carried out by these units, confirms Mototok’s head of sales & marketing, Thilo Wiers-Keiser.

The Spacer 8600s have facilitated a significant reduction in delays for BA at T5, Mototok notes and, says Wiers-Keiser, he has received excellent feedback on their performance from both the British flag-carrier and from Heathrow Airport’s operator.

Currently, Mototok’s various models are only capable of handling narrowbodies, but that is soon to change. Currently in development is a unit that will be able to push back widebodies; Wiers-Keiser expects this variant to be available for demonstration at least next year. It will be able to handle aircraft of up to B777 size (ie, pretty much all aircraft except B747s and A380s).

He considers that the issue that is holding back sales is the same problem that is generally hindering the proliferation of electric GSE – a lack of suitable electrical recharging infrastructure at many airports. Plenty of airport operators talk about going green, but when it comes to making the necessary investment, that is often another matter, Wiers-Keiser points out. Even when the airport authority is sufficiently convinced of the benefits of electric GSE to invest in installing the necessary charging points, the process still takes time.