I love spending time at airports. There’s so much cool stuff to see! From the control towers to the hangars to the aircraft, the entire aviation universe is a tech lover’s dream. For the aircraft owner who just has to have the coolest stuff available, a remote control tug should be the next thing on their shopping list.

Remote control tugs aren’t just a shut-up-and-take-my-money cool gadget. They actually solve the problem of towing an aircraft in and out of the hangar by hand using a tow bar, or with some other form of motorized tug. They require no physical strength to use, and they also allow the operator to position themselves wherever necessary to have the best view of the moving aircraft. This helps prevent collisions between other aircraft on the ground, or “hangar rash” between a moving aircraft and fixtures in the hangar.

There’s a healthy market for remote control aircraft tugs. Several companies are offering solutions designed to move everything from skidded helicopters to business jets to commercial airliners. These products all have a human operator in the loop, but the next generation of the technology could someday become autonomous. Researchers from NASA, Lockheed Martin, Carnegie Mellon University and UC Santa Cruz published a paper this year describing how self-driving aircraft towing vehicles could revolutionize airport management and ground operations and handling in the commercial sector.

Here’s how an autonomous networked tug might integrate with future airport ground operations: Tugs would be stationed at a central tug depot, where they would recharge when not in use. An airplane would land, pulling past the control and hold short markers. Meanwhile, the tug would maneuver to a “ready position” where it would meet the aircraft. The tug would scan the environment for obstacles and then attach itself, at which point the airliner would shut down one or both of its engines to save fuel. The aircraft’s auxiliary power unit would also likely remain running in order to power certain systems (like air conditioning) until the tug had secured the aircraft at the gate.

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An autonomous system of ground vehicles could prevent runway incursions, as the system would know where all vehicles are in relation to one another at any time. It could also reduce the workload in the cockpit once the tug docks with the aircraft, which would free up pilots to perform safety checks or other tasks. Tugs would have onboard sensors (360 degree LIDAR and electro-optical infrared cameras) to ensure they avoided collisions with obstacles and could continue operating in all weather conditions.

Additionally, ground radar (also known as surface movement radar) systems would net max efficiency for the networked fleet of autonomous tugs through computer control and diagnostic monitoring. Ground radar produces an image of the ground environment to further heighten situational awareness.

Studies have shown that commercial airliners burn substantial amounts of fuel while taxiing under their own power, a problem which could be optimized with autonomous tugs that could tow aircraft most or all of the distance to the runway. As an added benefit, this would also decrease CO2 emissions around airports. “Engine-off taxiing” would likely save billions of dollars in fuel costs over the course of a decade.

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Electric Green Taxiing System installed on an Airbus A320.

When combined with other technologies like the Electric Green Taxiing System (EGTS) from Honeywell and Safran (which places electric motors in the main wheels to enable ground movements without the use of the engines) there is significant opportunity to decrease both noise and air pollution within the vicinity of airports, which would be an very welcome change for neighborhoods in the vicinity of airports around the world.

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A networked fleet of self-driving aircraft tugs could also reduce human workload while increasing efficiency on the tarmac. As airports become more congested, autonomous networked ground vehicles could ultimately increase efficiency and safety. However, it will probably take some time to ensure they’re ready to be fully integrated into the frenzy of airport operations. Major questions about how autonomous versions of the remote controlled tugs would interact with other ground vehicles (autonomous, robotic or otherwise) and especially with aircraft and humans will need to be sufficiently answered in order to satisfy safety concerns.

Depending on the weight of your aircraft, you could expect to pay anywhere from $4,000 to well over $10,000 for a remote control electric tug. If that cost could be distributed over several aircraft, such as those maintained by a fixed base operator (FBO), the remote control tug could easily pay for itself in short order.

While we’re waiting for the increasingly-automated airports of the future (which hopefully don’t look like this concept) to materialize, a remote control aircraft tug is still an extremely cool and useful thing to have in your hangar, no matter what kind of aircraft you fly.

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Photo credit: Top shot .gif via embedded YouTube video, A320 with EGTS - Captainm/Wikicommons

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