London's largest airport Heathrow is investing in autonomous vehicles for their fleet of transport vehicles. The airport recently announced that it finished primary trials of self-driving airside vehicles.
The idea comes from a partnership with cargo specialist IAG Cargo and a United Kingdom-based startup called Oxbotica. Oxbotica makes a particular software that allows vehicles to operate in a self-driving mode without using GPS or any other technology beyond what it has in the vehicle.
Oxbotica tested out the "CargoPod" vehicle to run through the cargo route in the airside's perimeter. In total, Heathrow and Oxbotica gathered over 200km of data to give IAG and the airport more information to see if these autonomous CargoPods would be the investment Heathrow is looking for.
The announcement from Heathrow comes shortly after Gatwick Airport announced that it too would be trying out the automated vehicles around its facilities.
"Airports offer an incredibly interesting domain for our autonomous driving software," said Oxbotica CEO Graeme Smith. "There is a huge diversity of vehicles, each with a very specific mission. 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.”
The Gatwick trial will be slightly larger than the one conducted in Heathrow, and its autonomous vehicles will be used to carry staff throughout airside sections of the airport rather than just passenger luggage. Oxbotica noted that of Gatwick's 300 airside vehicles, most of them are stationary 90 percent of the time. The company hopes to show how airport transportation needs can be met with autonomous resources and ultimately save the airport energy and money.
“Technology is evolving at an incredible pace and we are working with fantastic businesses like Oxbotica to develop new capabilities that will change the way airports function,” said Chief executive of IAG Cargo Lynne Embleton in an interview. “The trial has yielded valuable insights and is another step in our commitment to embrace new technologies, improve processes and enhance our offering to our customers.”
Currently, autonomous vehicles in use for various non-passenger related transportation is a big push within the industry, according to reports from the IATA.
“There were a huge number of variables to consider, including transitioning from indoors to outdoors during journeys, but our vision-based localisation system performed exceptionally,” said Smith. “For us, the trial marks the first step in an ongoing relationship with Heathrow Airport and IAG Cargo."
Recently, autonomous vehicles have taken a beating after a pedestrian died in Arizona after a self-driving Uber hit her. However, other autonomous projects seem to very cautiously be moving forward with their trials to prove that their technology would still be safer than the alternatives.
“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," said Gatwick's Chief Information Officer Cathal Corcoran. "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.”