You won’t find them on the streets yet, but some incredibly useful autonomous vehicles are already playing a vital role at airports close to home. And we’re not talking about computer-controlled commercial-sized carpet sweepers here — these machines will be out on the tarmac.
This past summer, a self-driving security all-terrain vehicle was rolled out at the Edmonton International Airport to patrol the 13-kilometre perimeter security fence at the facility. And starting in early 2019, the Winnipeg Airports Authority will begin use of an autonomous snowplow at Winnipeg’s James Armstrong Richardson International Airport, making it the first airport in North America to use such a device.
The Winnipeg Airports Authority (WAA) has partnered with two Manitoba companies to pilot the specialized self-driving snowplow.
The first, Northstar Robotics based in Headingley, has developed an intelligent control system to power autonomous vehicles, having previously focused on the agricultural sector. The second, Airport Technologies Inc. (ATI) of Southport (near Portage la Prairie), manufactures snow removal equipment for airports. This partnership will enable an ATI Snow Mauler to be operated autonomously.
“We’re looking to supplement what we already have,” explained Tyler MacAfee, WAA Director of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs. “Crews will continue to clear the runways, but while that’s being done we can have the autonomous snowplow used to clear aprons and other areas to make it easier for the airport to operate.” He noted that the new plow would not operate in areas with active aircraft.
Adding to the toolkit
MacAfee said Winnipeg’s James Armstrong Richardson International Airport has one of the best records in the country for the fewest days lost to snowstorms, and he considers the new plow another tool in the toolkit.
“It’s not just the runways that need to be maintained in the event of a snowstorm,” he said. “That’s where we see an opportunity for this new plow to be a valuable addition.”
Keeping the airport running smoothly is important not only for airline passengers but also for cargo operations. “Just as our terminal is shutting down for the evening, our cargo operation starts ramping up with jets filled with the items people have just bought online, ready for next-day delivery.”
Patrolling the perimeter
Further west, the Edmonton ATV is a collaborative effort between the Edmonton International Airport and the Alberta Centre for Advanced MNT Products (ACAMP). The unarmed, unmanned vehicle drives autonomously along a pre-determined route, using machine learning to perform its tasks.
Automation is possible through drive-by-wire technology, using electronic controls to activate the brakes, control steering and operate other systems. Its advanced technologies also include obstacle avoidance, animal recognition, communication systems and situation analysis.
The new vehicle focuses on identifying damage to the fence surrounding the EIA, detecting human or animal activity, and Identifying obstacles using LiDAR (light detection and ranging).
Travelling along the fence line at an average speed of 15 kilometres per hour, the ATV will stop when it detects an anomaly, record the event and notify airport security. A live 360-degree camera feed is provided and, if required, security staff can take remote control of the vehicle.
The ATV will also shut off if there is an outage in its high-speed LTE cellular network link, if it leaves the road or if its location becomes uncertain.
ACAMP CEO Ken Brizel said that by using laser scanning, the ATV could detect holes in the chain link fence as small as a golf ball. It also checks for gaps under the fence and can detect people or various types of animals such as dogs and bears. Earlier this year it detected a moose, which was fortunately on the outside of the fence.
Brizel said results of testing have been positive and exciting. The first time the ATV did a circuit of the fence line, everyone was caught by surprise when a few small holes in the fence were found — and fixed promptly.
Aside from the daily patrols, the next big test comes with the onset of winter. “We’re on pins and needles a bit about the weather,” he said. “Our systems are good to -40 Celsius, but you know how prairie weather can be.”