“The future is now” is the name of a song by the American punk-rock band “The Offspring”. But the last thing on the songwriter’s mind while writing the lyrics was a baggage tractor – although we can probably assume that the band members are at airports around the world almost every day on their extensive concert tours. At Stuttgart Airport, they would currently get to see something very special: the dawning of the age of autonomous driving.
An autonomous baggage tractor developed by VOLK is conducting initial tests under real conditions at the Baden-Württemberg state airport. Tests include navigating to specific destinations, staying in lanes on prescribed routes, recognizing obstacles, managing intersection traffic independently, and much more. The vehicle can already cover certain routes on the apron independently. To make it all work, the tractor has several 3D cameras and laser scanners to help it find its bearings. A highly accurate GPS system makes it possible to determine the actual position with a maximum deviation of two centimeters. That’s about the size of a half dollar coin, and there are probably few human drivers who can claim to maneuver with such precision. For safety reasons, there is currently still a driver behind the wheel. But he can actually sit back and simply enjoy the ride.
The development of autonomous ground handling vehicles is particularly challenging because the traffic conditions at airports are difficult and the tractors have to be integrated into complex workflows. The test vehicle and the testing conducted in Stuttgart are part of the project “Smart Fleet – autonomous commercial vehicles for safe and efficient apron operations.” It is sponsored by the German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs. To carry out the project, Stuttgart Airport and VOLK have formed a consortium that also includes the special vehicle manufacturer Aebi Schmidt, which is working on the automation snow removal and runway cleaning. The cooperation is scheduled for a period of three years. The focus is not only on technical issues. The effects of the new technology on the working environment and the possibilities of easing the physically difficult work of ground handling staff in often adverse environmental conditions are also being studied.
“I am really pleased that the state airport and we as a Baden-Württemberg company are moving forward together with this new technology,” said VOLK Managing Director Dr. Matthias Baur on the occasion of a joint press conference in Stuttgart. The cooperation between the two partners has already paved the way for innovations in the past: As part of the research projects efleet and Lifleet, the possibilities for converting the baggage handling fleet to electric drive were jointly explored. This enabled Stuttgart Airport to be one of the first large airports in Germany to completely convert its baggage handling operations to electric drive. The airport’s environmentally friendly baggage tractor fleet today consists of VOLK electric tow tractors type EFZ 30 NT ULR and type EFZ 30 NT ULR Li.
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