A different type of towbarless tractor promises to reduce fuel consumption, cut carbon emissions and protect aircraft from FOD damage while taxiing planes all the way to the runway.
Ground Support Worldwide had a first-hand look at the Taxibot towing system during a special demonstration put on for the media to show off the new vehicle that promises to take a plane from gate to runway with its engine’s switched off.
“Someday you can say you were a passenger of the very first jet towed by a Taxibot,” said Ran Braier, Taxibot project director for the Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd., as we sat inside an A320, waiting for a turn to walk into the cockpit.
To be sure, the concept has already passed a number of operational tests since Braier first walked into Lufthansa LEOS headquarters and purposed the idea some four years ago.
“I was skeptical at first,” remembered Gerhard Baumgarten, director of sales and marketing, speaking at a press conference held at the airport. “We had tried to develop ideas like this before, but nothing had come of it.”
What eluded Lufthansa engineers was that the pilot was used to being … the pilot. And if that meant the engines needed to run to power the plane as the pilot taxied to the runway, well so be it.
In essence, the crucial difference between standard towing procedures and “something else” meant that there would be essentially no difference to the pilot who wanted full control of the plane.
During his presentation, however, Braier showed Baumgarten a movie in which engineering students built a model to convey how his semi-robotic tractor concept could put the pilot in command by means of a mechanical interface that would be “transparent to the pilot.”
Which is how we found ourselves sitting aboard a plane with no engines on the Monday before Thanksgiving, Nov. 19 at Chateauroux Airport, located several hours drive west of Paris.
“The Taxibot is more like a new aircraft in terms of its technology,” said Antoine Maguin, chief operating officer of the TLD Group, which built the Taxibot prototype. As many as 100 engineers labored on this one vehicle since TLD agreed in 2009 to manufacture the production vehicles.
“Normally, when you have just five engineers working on a GSE project,” Maguin joked, “you know it’s going to be a very big project.”
Although we were nominally the guests of TLD, the Taxibot concept has picked up quite an international pedigree during its R&D phase, including such well-recognized aviation industry names as Airbus and Lufthansa LEOS.
At first glance, the Taxibot doesn’t look that much different than other towbarless tractors. Like those conventional tractors, the Taxibot lifts up the plane’s nose landing gear before, say, pushing back the plane.
But a closer inspection reveals the “something else,” in fact, two major components – an interface mechanism that clamps on the wheels, which is in turn mounted on what Braier calls a “rotating turret. Those two elements are what leave a conventional tow behind:
Pilot In Control: Yes, the Taxibot does have a driver at the wheel. The driver’s main job, however, is chiefly dedicated to safe operations. And, of course, someone has to be on deck to drive the Taxibot back to its next rendezvous.
Once the plane is pushed back, the pilot is given complete maneuverability and, in effect, should feel no difference between plane and Taxibot during the tow.
“The Taxibot’s speed control is similar to a car with an automatic transmission put into drive,” Braier explained. “When the pilot releases the plane’s brakes, the Taxibot starts to move.”
Meanwhile, the pilot steers using the tiller in the flight deck, which transfers the commands to the Taxibot’s wheels by way of the interface that pivots on the turret. And not just a minor move to the left or right. The Taxibot’s tires each independently move, keeping the Taxibot in perfect alignment with the plane even during wide turns, avoiding any disastrous jackknives. (Earlier tests at Lufthansa had the plane/Taxibot going in Figure 8s.)