Automotive technology provider, Semcon is developing an autonomous tractor to keep runway edge lights clear of snow as part of a research project investigating new airport maintenance technology.

Automation can be used to reduce costs while also increasing efficiency and quality. The technology has now been tested for the first time at Örnsköldsvik Airport.

The AVAP (Autonomous Vehicles for AirPorts) research project is a unique collaboration that aims to demonstrate how vehicle automation can safely help to reduce costs and make airport operation more efficient. Long term, this will enable additional smaller airports to remain open during heavy snowfall and decrease delays for passengers.

‘Our part of the project involves developing an autonomous tractor designed to keep runway edge lights clear of snow. This may not seem like much, but the runway gets closed down if 15 per cent of the lights is non-operational, and this causes significant delays and costs. But more importantly, this presents major safety risks at the same time,' explained Anne Piegsa, Technical Project Manager at Semcon.

Demonstration of an autonomous future

Other parts of the project relate to monitoring solutions using drones, automatic mowing and friction measurement systems. These systems and vehicles have now been demonstrated together for the first time at Örnsköldsvik Airport (OER).

‘There is a great deal of innovative force in the region, and combined with short lead times, this has helped when establishing the OER test arena. We can collaborate with partners working with aviation digitization and automation and increase aircraft availability and efficiency with the research activities being pursued by the Swedish Air Navigation Services Provider LFV,' commented Björn Wahlström, Head of Research at the Swedish Air Navigation Services Provider LFV.

Many different applications

Snow clearing at airports is crucial to maintain operations. Take off and landing runways must be completely clear of snow if flights are to depart and land on time. At present, airports always need to be prepared, and always have to have staff on standby, which can come in and clear snow whenever it is needed.

‘One of the main challenges with clearing snow around runway edge lights is that a great deal of precision is required on surfaces that are not always smooth. This time-consuming work can be streamlined with our autonomous solution, which will also free up staff capacity, enabling people to work on other safety-related tasks that are not suitable for automation,' says Anne Piegsa.

The tractor unit used for the project is a Lundberg 6250, around 2.4-metre tall, 5-metre long (without attachments) and weighing just over 6 tonnes. A side from sensors which scan the environment, it has been equipped with a computer for intelligent control and management of the commands sent to it. A ploughing task is sent to the unit by an operator via 4G, and the computer then calculates how to complete the task, while constantly communicating its position and status. Air traffic controllers can also monitor and communicate with the vehicle.

The control unit was developed by Yeti Snow Technology, co-owned by Semcon, Husqvarna Group and Øveraasen, and is currently undergoing testing as part of projects involving autonomous snowploughs at an airport for Norwegian airport operator Avinor.

There are many different applications for this technology, where operation and maintenance have to be managed safely and with high levels of precision and repeatability.

The Swedish Air Navigation Services Provider LFV, OER, RISE, Mid Sweden University, Swedavia, Semcon, Husqvarna, Combitech and FlyPulse are all involved in the research project.