Gatwick Airport is to conduct a trial of autonomous electric vehicles to shuttle staff around the airfield, and hopes to replace around 300 airside vehicles that remain stationary 90% of the time, in a bid to reduce its carbon emissions and running costs.
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The pilot will be run by Oxford-based Oxbotica, which develops software to run autonomous vehicles without relying on GPS or other external technology, and is currently part of an Innovate UK-funded consortium bidding to conduct the first test of a Level 4 autonomous vehicle on British roads by 2020.
The test will be conducted on the airport’s private “airside” roads only, and is designed to demonstrate that autonomous vehicles can work safely in a complex and dangerous environment such as an active airfield.
“Airports offer an incredibly interesting domain for our autonomous driving software. There is a huge diversity of vehicles, each with a very specific mission,” said Oxbotica CEO Graeme Smith.
“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 that will demonstrate our self-driving technology carrying staff around the airfield.”
While the initial trial will explore moving staff around, Gatwick said that if successful it could be scaled up to meet other use cases suggested by airline trade body IATA, such as aircraft push-back tugs, passenger boarding bridges, baggage transports and passenger transport buses to remote stands.
Gatwick Airport CIO Cathal Corcoran said that in the future, the airport could conceivably implement an on-demand, “Uber-like service” operating across the airfield that staff could hail whenever they needed to travel, meaning the size of the overall fleet could be drastically cut.
“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. The new technology is a more efficient way to manage vehicles and could lead to a reduction in the number of vehicles required, their associated costs and harmful emissions,” said Corcoran.
The data generated during the trial period will be shared with the Department for Transport, the Civil Aviation Authority, and insurance company and Oxbotica partner XL Catlin, which is taking part to learn more about the implications on how autonomous airfield vehicles might be insured.
Read more about connected and autonomous vehicles
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“As Oxbotica’s Insurance Partner, XL Catlin are dedicated to enabling the widest possible adoption of this exciting technology by developing and providing the right insurance solutions. This is a great initiative by Gatwick Airport and we are delighted to be part of it,” said XL Catlin international chief executive, Jason Harris.
Gatwick is currently undergoing a £2.5bn refurbishment programme to overhaul its ageing facilities, some of which date back to the late 1950s. As part of this, it has also been overhauling its IT with a particular focus on innovation that can improve the experience of passengers using the airport.
In 2017 it implemented augmented reality (AR) navigation for travellers, using 2,000 battery-powered beacons to enable a so-called “blue dot” service on internal maps.
Using their smartphone cameras, passengers are now able to use an AR wayfinding tool to find their way to the right check-in area and boarding gate, and for arrivals, to locate their baggage reclaim belt.