back to article UK's London Gatwick Airport boasts of driverless vehicle trial

London Gatwick Airport in the UK has declared that it is trialling autonomous cars for moving staff around the airfield. The trial, which involves British autonomous vehicle software startup Oxbotica, “could lead to airfield transport needs being met from a much smaller pool of autonomous vehicles” rather than the traditional …

  1. Dwarf Silver badge

    The mind boggles

    Putting a higher risk (ie relatively untested) autonomous system into a high risk environment. What could possibly go wrong ?

    I wonder if the software is designed to consider things not on the same plane (horizontal plane, not thing with wings). Yes, planes have autopilots, but I bet they go through a heck of a lot more testing and far more rigorous testing than a constantly in development autonomous car

    How would they interact with the guys on the ground with their semaphores and with the fire service in emergency cases ??

    Perhaps its time to maintain a list of airports to avoid.

    1. wolfetone Silver badge

      Re: The mind boggles

      "Yes, planes have autopilots, "

      They do, and when the autopilot receives conflicting data it hands back control of the aircraft to the pilot.

    2. Jon 37

      Re: The mind boggles

      It's a limited environment that is very tightly controlled, which is fully mapped, where most people are following predefined paths, many vehicles are under central control already, all the humans are trained on strict safety rules that they must follow, the ground is good tarmac that is mostly level with good visibility, and there is good visibility of the sky for GPS reception. Sounds ideal for a first deployment of autonomous taxis.

      Sure, you don't want the car accidentally driving onto the runway or taxiways, but you just upload a map of the airfield with the runway and most taxiways marked as "do not enter", and the GPS in the car can handle that. If the car needs to drive across a taxiway then you give the car a radio link to the existing traffic signals, and program it not to cross the taxiway crossing (identified by GPS co-ordinates) unless it receives the "lights are green" radio signal.

      Note that we're talking about taxis here, so I expect they will take the staff around the airport and to the gate they need to be at, but they will be sticking to the marked vehicle routes.

      1. Ledswinger Silver badge

        Re: The mind boggles

        but they will be sticking to the marked vehicle routes

        You hope. What's going on here is that an immature technology is being trialled, so it would be reasonable to expect that there will be repeated instances of the tech not working properly. If Oxbotica weren't just after publicity, there's a whole range of disused airfields that they could trial this technology at with absolutely minimal risk, plus at least three former airfields now used as motor industry proving grounds (Gaydon, Honiley, Nuneaton), so they could combine the trial with limited other vehicular traffic in a controlled environment.

        Doing the trials at Gatwick is like Uber's use of the public roads - experimenting on people without their consent. And experimenting on the public without necessity at this early stage of development.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: The mind boggles

        Jon noted, "...good visibility of the sky for GPS reception. "

        GPS is not an "assured" system. That's why aircraft typically also include Inertial Reference systems, and they're Kalman-filtered into a single navigation solution. They'll get home safely even if the GPS system stops working.

        It's an incorrect assumption that GPS alone is suitable as the sole source of navigation data for Life Critical systems.

        The good news is that it would be trivial to supplant GPS with a local area (airfield) navigation beacon arrangement. As long as the Project Manager remembers to include this consideration in their Requirements database.

        Or, autonomous land vehicles could use dead reckoning as their back-up and cross-check. Perhaps with some embedded loops in the road for periodic zeroize-your-errors points.

        1. Jon 37

          Re: The mind boggles

          > GPS is not an "assured" system. That's why aircraft typically also include Inertial Reference systems

          GPS on its own can go wrong, but adding EGNOS guarantees any problems with the system are discovered quickly, and gives you better accuracy too. EGNOS was designed for safety critical systems like aircraft. The EGNOS system consists of a few dozen fixed receivers monitoring the GPS satellites and feeding that information to the EGNOS control center, which calculates correction information and sends it to a geostationary satellite that broadcasts it across Europe. A GPS receiver that supports EGNOS receives the EGNOS signal from that satellite and uses it to correct the GPS position.

          For readers in the US, EGNOS is a Europe-wide service, WAAS is the US equivalent. Airports might also have GBAS / LAAS, which is an equivalent service that covers a small area - just one airport and it's approaches - using a VHF transmitter at the airport.

          Also, if your taxi stops getting a good GPS signal, it can always stop. Worst case it causes a bit of a traffic jam until the tow truck gets there. Planes can't do that.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The mind boggles

      It's a far more sterile environment than roads. All lanes can have embedded sensors, and the rules and traffic plans are far more straightforward with less random events occurring

    4. macjules Silver badge

      Re: The mind boggles

      Airports offer an incredibly interesting domain for our autonomous driving software

      Perhaps someone should tell the Evil Ones Über about this?

    5. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: The mind boggles

      "What could possibly go wrong ?"

      I suspect we'll see the first time an unattended baggage cart gets sucked into an engine during pushback.

      (It happens occasionally during manned pushbacks, but it's _very_ occasional)

  2. Charlie Clark Silver badge

    A lot of the oversight can be handled remotely from a central control site. For the rest: traffic is already more or less routed on fixed paths for safety reasons with drivers spending a reasonable amount of time waiting for the next thing to happen or the next task to do. This is both ripe for rationalisation (better use of resources) and automation. You start with the easiest things first and develop, test and deploy.

  3. Bill M

    Eliminate any pedestrian humans

    Maybe eliminate any pedestrian humans walking around by replacing them with AI robots programmed to avoid the driverless vehicles ?

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Eliminate any pedestrian humans

      We already eliminate any pedestrian humans from the taxiways by having big jet engines to Hoover them up

      1. Bill M

        Re: Eliminate any pedestrian humans

        Would be even more efficient if they eliminated those pesky human passengers and replaced them with robot passengers. They would not need hand luggage and could remove their legs for storage in the overhead lockers allowing a greater passenger packing density.

        1. Charlie Clark Silver badge

          Re: Eliminate any pedestrian humans

          those pesky human passengers

          aka "self-loading cargo". Just imagine how much faster the whole getting on off planes would be if people could be loaded in containers!

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Eliminate any pedestrian humans

            "off planes would be if people could be loaded in containers!"

            You had to go and give them ideas didn't you.

          2. MrXavia

            Re: Eliminate any pedestrian humans

            "Just imagine how much faster the whole getting on off planes would be if people could be loaded in containers!"

            It would be much more comfortable than current airline seats

      2. Commswonk Silver badge

        Re: Eliminate any pedestrian humans

        We already eliminate any pedestrian humans from the taxiways by having big jet engines to Hoover* them up

        *Obligatory Note: Other makes of vacuum are available.

      3. caffeine addict Silver badge

        Re: Eliminate any pedestrian humans

        We already eliminate any pedestrian humans from the taxiways by having big jet engines to Hoover them up

        Unless there's a MASSIVE bag I've not seen, shirley this should be a certain brand of bagless vacuum cleaner...

        1. Bill M

          Re: Eliminate any pedestrian humans

          More like a mulching lawnmower that finely grinds and spits whatever it consumes.

      4. Mark 85 Silver badge

        Re: Eliminate any pedestrian humans

        We already eliminate any pedestrian humans from the taxiways by having big jet engines to Hoover them up

        The problem with that is that it just doesn't suck them up and out of the way, it chews them up and spits them out the back. No disposable bags for the vacuuming on a jet engine.

  4. Teiwaz Silver badge

    autonomous bee in the bonnet

    How soon until KFC or Post Office start trials.

    Hey, maybe we'll get the chicken to cook itself or the mail to deliver itself....it'll save us paying humans to do it....

    1. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      Re: autonomous bee in the bonnet

      Postal services are already moving towards this: reducing the number of deliveries and encouraging people to use centralised storage. If only they didn't have a "universal service obligation"…

      Re. fast food: I think McDonalds has started trialling robot burger flippers…

      1. Anonymous Custard Silver badge
        Linux

        Re: autonomous bee in the bonnet

        And after their recent FCK-up, I'm sure DHL would be rather afraid of KFC looking into self-delivering chicken...

        1. Teiwaz Silver badge

          Re: autonomous bee in the bonnet

          And after their recent FCK-up, I'm sure DHL would be rather afraid of KFC looking into self-delivering chicken...

          They could switch to carrier pigeons with a sachet of secret recipe tied to the leg that you stick in a microwave when it arrives...

  5. Ben1892

    You don't need to go full auto, one thing I notice about airports is that they have a lot of lines painted on the ground where things are and aren't allowed to go (as Charlie mentions above). I'm sure a lot of these roles could be "follow that yellow line and stop if something gets in your way" rather than "here's a big open space with danger in most of it apart from some safe bits, you figure it out"

    1. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      The other thing is that a lot of ground staff are low-paid and low-skilled and thus a risk in all themselves. This is more relevant for baggage handlers than drivers, still all part of the logic behind increasing automation.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        It a little unfair saying baggage handlers can be replaced; it takes years of learning to destroy a suitcase between the check-in and plane a few hundred metres away.

    2. Ledswinger Silver badge

      I'm sure a lot of these roles could be "follow that yellow line and stop if something gets in your way"

      So what's the point of the trial? We've had toys smarter than that for many years.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        So what's the point of the trial? We've had toys smarter than that for many years.

        Because these vehicles would be electrically powered from a conductor buried in a slot under the yellow line.

        The real breakthrough is the giant robot hand to put them back in the slot when they take a corner too fast.

  6. jms222 Bronze badge

    May be worth a look.

    Didn't somebody die at Heathrow recently from a vehicle collision causing hours of (probably unnecessary) delays ?

    When I landed at Grotwick last month we had to wait what seemed like ages while they cleared vehicles that shouldn't have parked on the stand.

  7. Francis Boyle Silver badge

    “shuttled between popular locations”

    Yeah, I hear just under the left engine is a great place to hang out.

  8. colinb

    Airside?

    "“airside” – the technical term for the parts of the airport where aeroplanes taxi around before and after takeoffs and landings."

    Nope, once you are through security and the other side of passport control you are 'airside', nowt to do with roads or taxiways although they are by definition 'airside'.

    This is the way things are going, a controlled environment is perfect and pretty easy to insert beacons like cats-eyes if navigation is needed.

    Could do with automating the AirBridges as well, some slow as hell operators of those, its not safety, there a slow and fast operators.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Typical Gatwick

    They are worse than BA...(the chum in charge of BA at the moment is quoted as saying that they arent doing their job properly if they arent always every day thinking about reducing costs).

    LGW/GIP look for any way to reduce staff working at the airport - in any way they possibly can - even if its all short term gain...

    All you have to do is look at the snow storm in 2010, just after GIP purchased the airport, they got rid of a load of staff from BAA, and then magically they couldnt cope with clearing the runway and apron from snow and the airport was closed for 3 full days....their excuse is the snow was unprecidented...it wasnt!

    Then you just have to look at the appauling horrid mess they have made to Edinburgh - BAA wasnt great, but this lot are only in it for the money - less staff, more automation, more money!

  10. Cynic_999 Silver badge

    Tug driver duties

    The article incorrectly states that the tug driver looks out for conflicts, open doors etc. Tugs have a 2-man crew, the driver and the "headset man". It is the latter who is effectively in command of both the aircraft and tug while it is being towed. He looks out for obstacles and instructs the aircraft captain as to when to release/apply brakes, when and in what order to start the engines etc. Like the tug driver, he is a senior member of the ground handling crew, and will have several other duties. While I see others are mocking the baggage handlers, the senior guys have a highly responsible and pretty skilled job, and as the last people to perform a visual check on the aircraft have prevented many serious incidents. As one example, the headset guy stopped a pushback because he noticed that the front oleo (shock absorber) was sitting a few inches higher than usual. He insisted on checking the load sheets, and spotted an arithmetical error that would otherwise have had the aircraft take-off while grossly out of trim (and most likely lost control shortly after take-off). Numerous cases of inspection panels being left open have been spotted by the headset man.

    1. Blofeld's Cat
      Coat

      Re: Tug driver duties

      "Tugs have a 2-man crew, the driver and the "headset man". It is the latter who is effectively in command of both the aircraft and tug while it is being towed."

      So guess which job the beancounters will eliminate first ...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Tug driver duties

      When I worked in the industry - we had an absolute buffoon who did the "headset man" job - he couldnt be @rsed doing the walkround before confirming that all hatches, doors and seals were closed and latched.

      These "Senior member of ground handling crew" jobs when they were outsourced from BAA and went to circus air were ALL minimum wage or within a few pennies an hour of it....

      They were that badly paid that they had to employ via the job centre, and the number of staff that were there so they didnt get benefit sanctions.....if you get fired from a job, you get your benefits back, if you quit, you have to suffer the consequences - we had 1 guy who kept knocking himself out on the airfield....

      Sorry Cynic_999 - I get what you are saying - but lets not pretend they are highly trained individuals....(they once were....now they arent!)....

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Megaphone

    You've seen Flying High, yeah

    Where the pilot and the self-fly fails (Autopilot).

    Well build into Aircraft the means to take control of the aircraft from the air traffic control tower and land the aircraft, where the pilot or the computer is non-functional. Autopilot have stuffed it recently, all three computer systems, in the newest aircraft too, there is a need for an external system.

    I was appalled that Autopilot was a box "between" the planes hardware AND the pilot rather than

    a V split and a switch , allowing the autopilot OR the pilot to be in control.

    Now for those on the ground there is a lesser dimensional problem - self drive errors here are less catastrophic.

  12. zaax

    Having an accident with another vehicle is expensive, but hitting a airplane is in a completely different dimension

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    ATC already have enough to do.

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