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Airports Eye Driverless Vehicles for Better Efficiency

by Michael Cheng

From food to consumer goods, airports require colossal amounts of supplies and products to sustain busy, year-round operations.

To bring the scale of such operations into perspective, a commercial plane carrying 400+ passengers must have at least two meals per person for long-haul flights. Considering there are roughly 100,000 flights scheduled daily worldwide, over 80 million pre-made meals are consumed per day (Singapore Airlines, for example, spends a whopping $500 million annually on their food service).

This doesn’t take into account restaurants inside the airport. Furthermore, food is only a small aspect of aviation services. Some airline companies provide cargo services, while large airports often have hotels attached for travelers transiting to their destination. These services must also be supported by timely deliveries and optimized supply chains.

Self-driving platforms, in the form of commercial truck platooning, could disrupt this aspect of daily aviation operations. Read on to understand how this technology is being developed to boost productivity in airports.

What Is Driverless Truck Platooning?

Commercial truck platooning is a type of autonomous driving protocol that involves a string of trucks (roughly 3-5) traveling closely together (10-12 feet) on highways. This method of traveling allows the vessels in the middle of the group to experience less drag. As a result, fuel consumption is reduced by up to 20 percent for the vehicles in the middle and up to 15 percent for the trailing unit. According to an MIT analysis revealed during the International Workshop on the Algorithmic Foundations of Robotics, the more participants in the string, the greater the savings in the form of time, fuel and money.

“Truck platooning relies on sensors and vehicle-to-vehicle communications, known as V2V, between the connected trucks,” says Thomburg LLP rep Kara Kapke. “For example, if the lead vehicle brakes, the follow vehicle’s brakes may be automatically activated.”

Extended Applications

There are some major limitations that come with this nascent, self-driving platform. For now, autonomous platooning systems are only effective on highways, because such roads have clearly marked lanes and no intersections.

Depending on where you are in the world, this type of autonomous driving is closely regulated by transportation authorities. But this has not stopped developers from advancing the technology. In 2016, Otto (through its parent company – Uber) completed its first platooning service from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, Colo. The trucks delivered 45,000 cans of Budweiser beer and traveled over 120 miles.

To clarify, commercial platooning isn’t limited to delivery trucks. It would be possible to lead with a large vehicle and string together smaller cars to improve traveling efficiency. External sensors (LIDAR, cameras and GPS) around the vessels autonomously maintain a safe distance between the vehicles. Inside, drivers or passengers could take naps, talk on the phone or even read a book.

With this in mind, the technology could be applied to luggage transportation operations around crowded airports, since traditionally, pods used to move baggage already travel in strings. The autonomous features of platooning would allow the vessels to travel on their own and attach to an airplane without help from workers.

“These technologies have been on airplanes for years and they have resulted in dramatic safety improvements in commercial aviation,” says Navistar Chief Executive Troy Clarke.

Michael is a legal editor and technical writer with publications for Blackberry, ISHN Magazine, Houzz and Payment Week. He specializes in technology, business and IoT.

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