DFW Airport to test robotic cargo tractor

TEMPE, Ariz. — Dallas Fort Worth International Airport is taking a small step on its journey into the future with the testing of an autonomous tug that will transport containers from a cargo plane to the cargo terminal.

EasyMile, a developer of software to automate existing vehicles, and cargo handling provider Menzies Aviation on Tuesday signed a contract for a pilot program under which a robot tractor with a dolly will transport cargo between an airside warehouse and a parked freighter, John Ackerman, executive vice president for global strategy and development, revealed in an interview.

“It’s basically a fixed loop on the loading ramp. We marked it. It’s a very short course at first. We have a safety pilot on board who has a big red stop button,” he told a major air cargo conference. “So we reduced the risk as much as possible. We believe the technology is ready and we are eager to learn.

The airport authority is not directly involved in the project, but acted as a facilitator when Menzies expressed interest, as it aggressively engaged in harnessing technology to address the disruptive trends shaping the society, including electrified transport, autonomous vehicles and climate change. DFW had a pre-existing relationship with EasyMile after testing a self-driving bus in a remote parking lot a few years ago.

“The technology is not mature enough to put out a tender, buy it and it will work. So we wanted to do a pilot and have our own learnings about it,” Ackerman explained.

Lawyers were able to work out issues regarding driverless vehicles moving around the planes to finalize the arrangement.

The potential benefits of automating freight shuttles include less need for employees when manual labor is increasingly difficult to obtain, cost savings, safety, and emission reductions. The airport’s vision is to be net zero carbon emissions by 2030, greatly aided by the purchase of large amounts of cheap wind power.

DFW makes significant investments in freight infrastructure. Last year it handled 1 million tons of cargo.

Ackerman said “tugbot” testing on the half-mile route will begin very soon.

“This is where the world is going and we want to be ready,” he said.

Physical and digital changes to air cargo processing were on the agenda at the Cargo Network Services event, which attracted more than 700 industry stakeholders.

More EasyMile Apps

In March, EasyMile launched a use case study of its TractEasy driverless electric tow tractor at Daimler AG’s truck assembly plant in Wörth, Germany. The self-driving guided vehicle moves production parts at 6 mph from a storage area to the assembly line on a two-thirds mile indoor/outdoor course.

EasyMile’s software is integrated with the company’s warehouse management system so that operations can be monitored and controlled remotely, allowing material to be moved at any time of the day.

TractEasy was developed with TLD GSE, which manufactures ground support equipment.

More than 20 tugs have been deployed around the world, both at industrial sites and at airports, including Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, Tokyo’s Narita International Airport and Singapore’s Changi Airport, according to EasyMile.

Schiphol Airport also buys so-called TaxiBots to move planes between the gate and the runway instead of using jetpower.

Investors in the company include leading automotive supplier Continental and transport manufacturer Alstom.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.

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