Manufacturers of tugs and tractors are continuing to innovate in anticipation of the return of international travel to pre-Covid levels. Collaboration is a key part of the development of approaches that satisfy changing customer demands, as Megan Ramsay reports
Like other companies in the aviation industry, Textron GSE experienced a slowdown in demand throughout 2020 because of the pandemic. But, so far this year, it has seen demand rise at a surprising rate as travel has begun to resume and airlines have adjusted their flight schedules accordingly.
Nevertheless, says Textron GSE vice president and general manager Matt Chaffin: “The pandemic will have a lasting change in some areas of how Textron GSE operates. For example, forecasting and inventory management within the supply chain has become increasingly more important.”
Despite the impact on its business in 2020, Textron GSE continued to invest in its products and customer service capabilities. New products included the TUG™ ALPHA 1 (covered in more depth in another feature of this magazine). The company also delivered a new TUG and Premier™ parts catalogue, which will be followed by details for Safeaero and Douglas.
“Customers are focused on equipment that delivers safe, efficient, reliable performance that keep operations running on time,” Chaffin continues. “Delays can be costly, and customers do not want to worry about whether equipment is operational.
“Additionally, innovations like Smart Sense™ collision avoidance, and advanced seat switches are safety features customers look for, alongside extras like centre-drive ergonomics and a rear-view camera found on the TUG ALPHA 1.”
Textron GSE is seeing a strong focus on products that interact with the aircraft, such as the TUG 660 belt loader, as well as other pushbacks and cargo tractors.
While customer requirements vary, there are several overarching tendencies in the tug and tractor market at present – which align with those in the wider GSE sector. WheelTug director Jan Vana says: “The major trends are digitalisation, automation, electrification and collaboration. WheelTug is a huge step forward for all of these. It will enable pilots to be less dependent on ground staff and GSE such as tugs.”
In August last year, WheelTug and ADB SAFEGATE announced a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to work together to enhance safety and throughput at airport gates by combining their respective technologies.
The Safedock advanced visual docking guidance system (A-VDGS) from ADB SAFEGATE automates the task of safe docking at gates and stands, guiding aircraft with a 3D laser scanning technique and LED display.
The WheelTug e-taxi system, meanwhile, uses electric motors in the aircraft nose wheel. In conjunction with the WheelTug Vision camera/sensor system, pilots can manoeuvre forward and backward without needing tow tugs or generating jet blast.
Decades ago, standard single-aisle aircraft could park parallel to terminal gates, with passengers using two jet bridges to board or deplane via both the front and aft doors simultaneously, WheelTug notes. As jet thrust became more powerful, nose-in parking became the norm to avoid jet blast incidents in the gate area.
Together, WheelTug and ADB SAFEGATE offer the accuracy and safety needed to return this time-saving procedure to increasingly crowded ramp areas.
WheelTug is slated to enter the market during the second or third quarter of 2022 – but ADB SAFEGATE’s Safedock A-VDGS technology is already present at numerous airports around the world.
“Pilots are already familiar with it,” says Tammi Phippen, media relations at ADB SAFEGATE. Summing up how Safedock will work with WheelTug, she adds: “ADB SAFEGATE’s Safedock system guides the pilot when performing WheelTug manoeuvres.”
According to Vana, ADB SAFEGATE’s A-VDGS is “a perfect fit” for pilots to use with WheelTug-specific manoeuvres. “Pilots can also continue to use the traditional method but our strategic vision is to have fewer people airside to reduce human error.”
Textron GSE is also seeing continued interest from its customers around electrification, digitalisation and automation. The company is currently adding more models that feature lithium technology to its product offering.
Plus: “As we digitalise our vehicles, we can add customer telematics systems for capturing live performance data on the vehicles,” says Chaffin. “Additionally, we constantly collaborate with customers to understand future business requirements regarding products, sustainability initiatives and the nuances of ramp operations.”
Vana points out that airports must find the right balance regarding ground crews and automation. Some will prefer to maintain a traditional workforce, whereas others are very excited about automating their airside operations. “Regardless, WheelTug will make operations safer for all rampside personnel,” Vana states.
The benefits of automation have perhaps never been so clear as they have been during the Covid-19 pandemic. Phippen says: “Automation helps when traffic is up and down and the need for staff varies. It allows greater flexibility when demand is unpredictable.”
And if passenger volumes return to pre-Covid growth rates, the high degree of efficiency that automation can offer will be all the more necessary.
More than 25 airlines have already signed letters of intent with WheelTug. The next steps for the collaboration between WheelTug and ADB SAFEGATE are safety and feasibility studies, the development of a roadmap, and a pilot project that will generate further improvements.
Already, WheelTug is working with several airport management companies regarding the implementation of its FASTgate (Fast And Safe Turn Gates) vision, which could save up to 20 minutes of ground time per flight.
All partner companies will share information, combining aircraft data with gate-specific sensor data. Thus, airlines and airports will have a clear picture on how to optimise gate operations and increase efficiency.
FASTgates will be optimised for WheelTug’s ‘Twist’ and ‘Twirl’ manoeuvres – but they will not be WheelTug exclusive: they will support any aircraft of appropriate dimensions.
WheelTug’s vision of the future of airside operations is one where automation delivers better throughput and safety, Vana says, adding: “We believe it is good to join forces with recognised experts, like ADB SAFEGATE, who understand airport operations. [The idea is to] build a system.”
Thorben Burghardt, vice president, gate at ADB SAFEGATE, comments: “ADB SAFEGATE is applying intelligent integration and automation to bridge the silos of different airport systems. Digitalising and automating the apron requires all stakeholders to collaborate closely to deliver lower costs, higher efficiency and safety, as well as happier passengers.”
Another collaboration currently in progress is that between Cincinnati Airport and autonomous vehicle technology company ThorDrive. The partnership to develop an autonomous luggage tractor by retrofitting an ordinary unit began in February 2020 and entered the actual testing phase in early 2021.
Brian Cobb, chief innovation officer at Cincinnati, says: “Deploying autonomous vehicles begins with the crucial step of mapping the operational area while obtaining massive amounts of data, including speed and traffic restrictions, conditional scenarios with planes and people, and environmental and weather considerations. This step is fundamental: training the brains of the system and onboarding artificial intelligence (AI). It relays information to the equipment’s actuators on how to control the speed, steering, and braking.”
According to Cobb, Cincinnati is the first airport in the world to support the development, trial and deployment of a fully autonomous retrofit of GSE operating in and around aircraft and ground personnel.
He goes on: “We pursued ThorDrive’s retrofit design based on affordability, agility, and flexibility. The retrofit design allows the owner to convert some or all of their existing fleet and operate their GSE in manual and autonomous modes. This approach maximises flexibility to address aviation’s significant financial swings, changes in operational conditions and concern over the availability of personnel.
“In contrast, an autonomous-only vehicle with a mission-specific design will be challenged for some time to enter the marketplace affordably while maintaining or integrating existing fleets and while trying to gain efficiencies under the same conditions,” Cobb considers.
Cincinnati’s tenants operate close to 1,000 tugs and tractors. Airlines and ground handling companies are actively engaged with ThorDrive and the programme is taking shape in additional live trials for belly cargo movement between a remote cargo facility and scheduled passenger aircraft.
Goldhofer global sales director airport technology Christof Peer points out that as passenger volumes pick up, customers are willing to invest again – but they are doing it differently than they did before Covid-19 emerged.
”There is a huge push for sustainability,” Peer remarks – more so than before the pandemic. “We’re lucky because we’d already positioned ourselves as a manufacturer of sustainable solutions. We launched our electric tractors – the Phoenix AST-2E towbarless electric tow tractor, the Bison E 620 conventional tow tractor and the Sherpa E cargo and baggage tow tractor just before the pandemic hit. Then, of course, all the Covid subsidies were provided on the condition that they would be used to improve sustainability.”
Goldhofer launched its Sherpa E just before the crisis hit and the unit is “doing really well”, says Peer. “It offers high efficiency and higher speeds, is capable of covering longer distances and pulling heavier loads, and it is powerful enough to tackle inclines.” These attributes make the Sherpa E particularly useful for towing cargo.
Goldhofer used the downtime during 2020 wisely to prepare for the restart – or rather, for the totally new environment the aviation industry is now facing, Peer specifies. “The switch from a fossil fuel-oriented business to something green isn’t something you can do by snapping your fingers,” he says.
“It needs a new approach from us and our customers – and infrastructure. Infrastructure for GSE used to mean mostly space, but with electric GSE you have a hard interface with energy management. The biggest challenge customers have to consider when they’re investing in new equipment is the energy requirements of the units and the availability of supporting infrastructure.”
Still, switching to electric GSE has environmental and economic benefits, if it is done right. “The trend for sustainability was there before, but the Covid crisis has given the push for it to become a mega-trend in the industry,” Peer says. “Having electric equipment used to be fancy; now, it’s part of daily operations.”
Goldhofer has followed what Peer calls “the automotive route” in order to benefit from the rapid developments in technology in that sector. For instance, its ‘IonMaster’ Li-ion batteries always operate in their comfort zone no matter what the ambient temperature may be.
Peer is confident that battery capacity will increase in the future. Hydrogen is also gaining more and more momentum, and Goldhofer already has some plans relating to this. Sustainability will remain a key trend – and Peer believes the industry is at a pivotal point now.
For the moment, manufacturers of tugs and tractors must provide choices when it comes to power. Textron GSE, for instance, offers an array of fuel options for its tractors, including internal combustion, gas, diesel and electric powertrains. Plus, the company is currently improving its compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) fuel offerings.
Other changes Peer highlights include a shift in customer preferences from ownership to usage. Plus: “After-sales service for electric units is totally different to conventional models in terms of their lifetime and the requirements to keep them running. There will be a shift towards preventative maintenance.
“Digitalisation is a big part of how to do things right. We are developing digital solutions for our customers, which will provide a smart maintenance schedule and improve the safety of their operations.
“The entire aviation landscape is now changing. It’s an exciting time and there is a lot of optimism,” Peer says.
The introduction of autonomous tugs and tractors to the apron as a means to achieving greater efficiency, cost effectiveness and sustainability, while clearly an increasingly popular decision, is not without its critics.
Cobb says: “With these technologies, some may raise concerns about safety and implications to the workforce. While these may be valid, our industry has faced these same concerns almost since the inception of aviation. Yet, we have still managed to adapt and advance new technologies out of necessity or economic pressures.
“Likewise, we see proponents identifying clear benefits and calculating realistic outcomes. It is reasonable to consider the near-immediate efficiency gains and safety benefits. AI-trained, autonomous GSE … adheres to the rules of service roads; follows safe proximity restrictions to people and assets; maintains situational awareness; yields reduced maintenance costs; frees vital staff from repetitive tasks; provides an opportunity for personnel upskilling; and addresses labour shortfalls.”
While there is a tremendous amount of talk about automation, action is lacking. Cobb puts this down to a lack of general awareness of the technology, coupled with risk aversion.
Therefore: “We see added responsibility on the airport’s part to socialise the technology with our tenants and passengers. We anticipate customers becoming more accustomed to seeing autonomous equipment operating in a complex environment, and, perhaps through this socialisation, our customers will be more willing to embrace autonomous [GSE].”