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Review of use cases and deployment projects of self-driving technologies at airports all around the world

What are the potential use cases of autonomous vehicles at airports? What deployment projects are taking place at airports globally? Gain insight into these questions and more by keeping an eye on our series of articles on self-driving technologies at airports.

Autonomous driving is no longer a new word for many. Autonomous shuttles along with robotaxi, autonomous pods, autonomous trucks to name a few, have hit the roads all around the world. Globally, the volume of AVs (autonomous vehicles) is estimated to reach 110,100 units by 2026, growing from approximately 6100 units in 2020 at a CAGR of more than 60% (ResearchAndMarket, 2022).

Although technology has made significant progress in recent years, commercial use of AVs is still very much limited due to reasons ranging from capital constrain, project complexity and regulations. Recognizing this, we need to find the most feasible locations where AVs can already provide a valuable service for their use cases without having to battle with complex regulation barriers.

Airports, among other private sites, appear to be one of the most realistic locations to deploy autonomous driving technologies as there are many predictable, short-range movements. Just imagine you have a flight to catch for your 10-day vacation. You arrive at the terminal building by a taxi, private car, or public transportation, carry your luggage to the check-in desk, walk to your boarding gate and wait for the departure, and finally go through the boarding bridge or take an airside shuttle to get on the plane. At the same time, your luggage is driven by a tractor to the plane. All these movements are carried out in a controlled, closed environment without much interference from other, unpredictable traffic, which implies the possibility to have them automated. 

Financially, the benefits of implementing automated solutions are tremendous considering AVs can be deployed for 24/7 with a large amount of labour cost to be saved.

Airports are one of the feasible locations for the deployment of autonomous vehicles.
A wide range of use cases of varying autonomous vehicles have been successfully demonstrated at airports around the globe.
Airports, as highlighted by the IATA (International Air Transport Association), have more than 40 use cases for autonomous driving technologies. Their private-owned nature with a controlled environment is less restrained by lack of regulation support and thus have advantages to reach up-take commercialization. Transport of people stands out as a potential application of autonomous vehicles. Interconnectivity between terminals and with parking or public transport stations can be undertaken using autonomous shuttles. Fleets can be deployed at high frequency while optimizing costs and capacities by automatically adapting to flight departures and arrivals with demand peaks. Focusing on personal mobility within the terminal, AV pods can speed up the path to reach the boarding gates, especially for tight-time layovers and reduced mobility passengers. In addition, AVs’ capacity to evaluate their surroundings and coordinate between them will diminish the existing risks the workforce is exposed to when moving around the runways and airport facilities. AVs are not restricted to moving people, but also goods. Autonomous aircraft tugs and cargo tractors at airside will upgrade operations efficiency. Autonomous tractors bringing bags directly between connecting flights will upgrade baggage handling operations. Parking space can be fully optimised with autonomous deployment solutions. Self-driving technologies can also help airports increase operational efficiency. For example, cleanliness in airports heightened due to the Covid-19 pandemic, demanding for AV-based solutions to ensure full-time disinfection in terminal buildings. See exhibit 1 for more use cases. 

Acknowledging the wide range of use cases, airports all over the world have joined the race to trial some of the most innovative and promising autonomous driving technologies.

To help airport owners, operators, managers, and practitioners to grasp the latest status of AV technology deployments, it is important to draw inspiration, lessons learned and apply some of the innovations to their own airports. Pendel Mobility has investigated into previous and on-going deployment projects of automated vehicles, mostly in Europe and some in the US and Asia.

The airport projects analysed have varied, with some being pilot projects and some being larger-scale deployments, all covering diverse scenarios, types and manufacturers of vehicles, and locations at or around airports. Notably, EasyMile wins most airport cases and other popular vehicle providers include Aurrigo, Navya, Oxbotica.

(See our full report with a ranking of airports & vehicle providers with the greatest number of projects)

We highlighted some fascinating projects at two pioneer airports that appear on top of the ranking: Heathrow Airport in London, UK and Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, France. They have gathered significant attention from the public, aerospace, and automotive industries. To explore more projects at airports, check our regularly updated interactive project map.

Heathrow airport uses small autonomous pods (see picture 1.1) that take up to 4 travelers from a parking lot to its terminal building, running on a separate guideway. This project has been able to replace some 50,000 bus trips. Another project at Heathrow airport together with Ferrovial tested a Navya autonomous shuttle (see picture 1.2) on a 600-meter road. Also at Heathrow, British Airways with Aurrigo tested autonomous dollies (see picture 1.3) that can handle and carry baggage on the airside.

Charles de Gaulle Airport has also trialed different autonomous vehicles for use cases covering passenger transport, cargo mobility, and automated operations. It worked with French transport group Keolis to test a Navya automated shuttle (see picture 2.1) at commercial and real estate district Roissypôle. In 2016, the airport explored the robots from Stanley Robotics that can precisely park cars autonomously. In 2021, it partnered with Air France KLM to test airside cargo transport vehicles (see picture 2.3) from OROK.

Despite how fascinating these projects look, there are many bottlenecks, especially for smaller airports, to join the path towards the future of airport mobility.

Obstacles are believed to come from three aspects: capital availability, human resources, and regulation knowledge.

The lack of capital resources is an obvious one. Costs for the deployment of AVs can be millions of euros. Although expenses are mainly dependent on vehicle types and scale, project duration, specific use cases, operating scenarios, and deployment areas, it also needs to be considered that additional costs can come unexpectedly, from preparation (e.g., identification of use cases for different airport areas, feasibility study including cost-benefit analysis, infrastructure assessment, sourcing providers for vehicles and additional products and services, cost negotiation, etc.), from setup (e.g., delivery of vehicles, testing, and training, etc.), and finally from operation (e.g., vehicle operation, monitoring, and maintenance)

Secondly, some airports face a lack of human resources and experience such as technology experts, innovation project managers, communication experts on innovation, and experience to run, promote, and upscale autonomous driving projects. More tasks will emerge also along the process from preparation, setup to operation.

The last aspect is regarding regulation, which is viewed as the main bottleneck to the adoption of autonomous driving (McKinsey survey result).

 Regulations vary significantly in different countries and evolve so rapidly that existing knowledge about it can become outdated overnight. For private sites such as airports, regulations are not as strict as those for public roads, they still must comply to different general regulatory procedures established by national transport authorities.

Identifying these bottlenecks, Pendel Mobility is ready to provide an all-inclusive service to help airports deploy and benefit from autonomous vehicles.

To get everything prepared We identify the most feasible and suitable use cases, study the feasibility in all aspects (operation model, infrastructure gap, financials, etc,), design the services and solutions, comply with the regulations, and seek financing options, etc.

To get everything delivered and set up: As the single-point-of-contact, we are dedicated to delivering an all-inclusive solution for implementing autonomous, demand-responsive transport (A-DRT) among other technologies by identifying the most suitable services & technologies from a pool of leading, trusted providers.

To get everything operated and maintained: We will also operate and maintain the AVs onsite and closely monitor and report the deployment progress.