As of late June, an autonomous baggage dolly had been on trial at London Heathrow Terminal 5 for some six weeks. The proof of concept testing has been carried out as a partnership between Coventry, UK-headquartered Aurrigo and British Airways
British Airways forms part of Anglo-Spanish joint carrier business International Airlines Group (IAG), and IAG approached Auriggo, a specialist in first- and last-mile autonomous technology, having seen what it had achieved with the development of autonomous pod vehicles.
The world’s first autonomous baggage dolly began its testing at Heathrow in May this year. A converted standard dolly, it was equipped with GPS, LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and cameras to enable the autonomous unit first to identify its position on the apron and then to execute its ensuing movements safely.
The GPS tells the dolly where it is in relation to a previously mapped area of the Terminal 5 airside environment (Aurrigo mapped the area prior to the trial, rather than use any commercial software such as Google Maps), while the LIDAR and cameras enable it to avoid potential collisions and move safely to its next waypoint on the ramp.
Richard Fairchild, Aurrigo’s operations director, explains: “Until you have seen it first-hand, it’s difficult to explain how big an operation it is moving bags around an airport. In Terminal 5 alone, BA operates around 900 dollies.
“The current method is to have one manually driven tug towing three dollies behind. It can’t move until they are all full, which means there are a lot of empty dollies waiting around.
“What IAG wanted to do was look at an alternative solution and that’s where we came in, using knowledge gained from our hugely successful Pod Zero passenger carrying vehicle to turn a standard dolly into a self-driving vehicle capable of moving bags from the baggage hall to the aircraft stand,” Fairchild informs.
“Better still, this means that each dolly can move on its own and doesn’t need to wait for all three to be loaded, providing greater flexibility and speed of loading, not to mention reducing the need to maintain such a huge fleet of dollies and tugs. A massive win-win for airports and airlines,” he declares.
David Keene, the company’s CEO, adds: “Our driverless pods are now in operation all around the world and the work with IAG and BA shows how similar technology can be used in a completely different industry to deliver significant results.
“We are now exploring different ways in which we can create the production line and supply chain to rapidly build thousands of these autonomous dollies. The world really is our oyster on this one.”
Miles Garner, Aurrigo’s sales & marketing director, notes how congested the ramp environment is: a difficult environment in which to operate autonomous vehicles. Moreover, speed is vital for getting baggage from an aircraft to the baggage hall so as not to keep passengers waiting for their luggage.
Yet the potential value of autonomous vehicles for use for jobs such as airside baggage transport is potentially significant, not only in terms of the savings that might be achieved but also in improving safety (the vast majority of accidents and damage caused on the ramp being due to human error amongst drivers and operators).
The testing remains at the proof of concept stage, Garner confirmed when speaking to Airside International at the end of June. A BA truck continues to follow the autonomous dolly during the ongoing trials in order to ensure there is no danger and a lot more testing under operational questions is still required.
Nevertheless, there has been a lot of interest in the technology from ramp operators, he says, and it is in no way exclusive to BA or IAG. Hence, if this concept proves its operational worth (and the safety of such autonomous operations more generally), Aurrigo is free to commercialise the system for any other potential customers.
While Aurrigo has declared itself (and IAG) “extremely pleased” with the initial results of the testing, the technology remains in the “early days” of its development. So watch this space.