A multitude of factors can contribute to a flight being delayed, but Air France, who partnered with a handful of other companies, is testing the world’s first self-driving luggage tug in hopes of streamlining airport operations and improving the speed of getting luggage to and from an aircraft.
The vehicle, known as the AT135 baggage tractor, began official testing at France’s Toulouse-Blagnac airport last month on November 15. To the untrained eye it looks like the myriad of vehicles you already see scurrying around the airport tarmac while waiting for a flight, including a cab with a seat, steering wheel, and all the controls needed for a human driver. But look closer and you’ll be able to spot some of the telltale hardware upgrades of an autonomous vehicle, including laser scanning LIDAR sensors on the roof and bumper that complement less visible sensors like GPS and front and rear cameras providing a 360-degree view around the tug.
Climb inside the tug and you’ll also find a big switch allowing it to be switched between manual and autonomous modes, as well as an oversized touchscreen showing a map of the airport and all the gates the vehicle is designed to service. Once loaded with up to 25 tons of baggage, a member of the ground crew simply taps on which gate and aircraft the bags are destined for, and the tug will autonomously navigate to its destination at speeds of up to 15 miles per hour while obeying all the airport traffic laws and avoiding obstacles like people and other vehicles—including aircraft. Once unloaded, the vehicle is sent back along its same route to fetch another load of bags for another flight.
One of the most cited reasons for the development of autonomous vehicles is the improved safety and efficiency that will result from taking human drivers out of the equation and off the roads, and that’s essentially the same motivation for the development of this autonomous baggage hauler. With access to GPS, long-range sensors, and even a detailed knowledge of other traffic around an airport, this tug could plan the most efficient route to and from an aircraft to reduce delays and mistakes.
It also frees up members of the ground crew for other tasks that are years away from automation, such as actually loading luggage into a plane’s cargo hold. Furthermore, there is also potential for improving security at an airport, as eliminating humans altogether once all the ground crew and service vehicles are automated could reduce the chance of bad actors accessing planes. Assuming, of course, that all of this machinery is properly secured and protected from hacks once it goes into full-time service.