Autonomous cars and trucks have made strides in semi-autonomous designs. Airports are far simpler than urban streets, so expect autonomous technology in ground support equipment (GSE) operations at your airport soon. Already in use at major airline hubs, this equipment is proving a success.
If you are a pilot, GSE operator, or airport worker, there will be some negative impacts and many benefits with autonomous technology. Some GSE positions will go, and new employment opportunities will arise.
The Autonomous Transformation
The aviation industry has been on a slow march toward adapting technology; now, it’s rapidly adopting every possible innovation to assist ground support. Autonomous GSE operations can perform aircraft cleaning, towing, pushbacks, and baggage handling – without direct human intervention.
There are several factors driving change. There is a shortage of skilled ground operators. Automation will alleviate labor shortages. Automation and robotics mean greater efficiency. GSE owners and operators, as in any industry, are anxious to save money on labor costs. Ground operations will see increased utilization and reduced turnaround time; autonomous ground support vehicles improve safety by limiting human error.
With autonomous vehicles equipped with sensors and global positioning system information, control centers can instantly intervene electronically if a support vehicle malfunctions.
Autonomous GSE Types
In use or under development, there are many types of autonomous GSE. Baggage handling vehicles can autonomously enter terminals, load baggage, move to aircraft, and load the baggage. Accomplished in reverse, and in both cases with little or no human supervision.
Autonomous pushback and tow tractors can move aircraft to takeoff staging areas, to and from terminals to parking, and to maintenance hangers. Robotic and self-directed vehicles can clean aircraft exteriors with little or no human effort on the ground.
Autonomous cargo handling vehicles and equipment have easy tasks because cargo is highly systemized already. Large cargo containers have smaller packages stored in them, and automated lifters and pullers easily remove the standardized cargo containers. Then, the containers move into an autonomous vehicle for delivery to loading docks for land transportation.
Adoption of Autonomous GSE
While it is exciting to see what seems to be a rapid development, there are some hurdles ahead. The development, testing, and deployment come at a high cost. GSE equipment is limited compared to larger markets, so investors hesitate. Comprehensive regulations and frameworks have yet to be developed. There is still the hurdle of public acceptance and some from within the industry.
Still, there is some push to develop autonomous ground equipment. Airlines are anxious to see this new technology. It will mean on-time performance, greater efficiency, and lower costs. Also, airlines want to see their customers satisfied. Passengers will enjoy shorter wait times for a better customer experience. Airport operators see autonomous vehicles as an advantage for safety, reduced congestion, and increased capacity.
What is Not Likely to Change?
Things that are not likely to change soon are maintenance and repair hanger worker’s tools. A&P-certified mechanics are not easily replaced with robotics. Although GSE software can make scheduling, ordering parts, and troubleshooting easier, it can’t replace human hands-on work.
For example, aircraft need to rise off the ground for repairs and maintenance. Aircraft jacks, like Tronair jacks, need humans to precisely raise many different aircraft with a wide range of lifting points. Up to four jacks and many stands need placement exactly where manufacturers direct. Then repairs and maintenance are more complex, and aircraft have exacting repair specifications.
Fuel trucks may take an operator or arrive at an aircraft for fueling, but humans need to connect hoses, inject additives, inspect fueling ports, and ensure there are no leaks. Automation has limitations at this stage of development and is restricted to plain tasks.
The Changing GSE Environment
You would agree that autonomous technology in GSE operations is a net advantage for airlines, passengers, and airport operators. The changes already seen at major hubs, and the ones on the horizon, are encouraging. But you need to know what possible changes are ahead for your own sake.
What you anticipate is not necessarily what will happen, but you know big changes are afoot. You are part of that change. Keep up with it, and don’t fall behind.