Bringing Autonomy Airside

Feb. 18, 2021
With the support of Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport and Wollard International, ThorDrive is applying lessons learned from driverless cars to GSE.

If the term streetwise can be used in aviation, it can be applied to ThorDrive’s autonomous technology. Having begun testing its self-driving technology on public roads in Seoul, South Korea, and later in Palo Alto, Calif., the start-up company re-trained its focus on the aviation market.

Since pivoting their attention to the airport, ThorDrive has worked with Wollard International to install its technology on a baggage tractor and has partnered with Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) to bring autonomy to airside ground support operations.

“The underlying technology and software has been incubated for about 15 or 16 years,” explains Edward Shelton, VP of business development at ThorDrive, adding company founder Dr. Seung-Woo Seo started the artificial intelligence and robotics lab at Seoul National University.

“At CVG, we have a robust innovation program, especially as our partners on campus evolve, not just with passengers but also with cargo – having both DHL and Amazon hubs here,” points out Naashom Marx, senior manager of strategic innovation at CVG.

She explains officials at CVG were interested in researching autonomous technologies, in general, to determine how automation can be of use in an airport setting, looking at anything from autonomous sweepers and floor scrubbers inside the terminal to larger equipment for both airside and landside use.

“We’re viewing autonomous opportunities as a stop-gap to employment shortfalls among other positive developments. Pre-COVID, our tenants were experiencing record hiring rates. As a growing airport, we view it as part of our stewardship to support employment growth needs and address challenges when they arise. We’re learning quickly how important future-proofing will be in a post-pandemic world,” Marx says.

“It’s an overall win-win for both the business and employee.”

Marx explains CVG representatives studied various forms of autonomous vehicles. While crediting all the great technology currently available, she says ThorDrive’s solution stood out because of its functionality, the speed at which it operates and the way it navigates.

Watching ThorDrive’s technology on display in the streets of Palo Alto gave CVG officials a vision of how it could be applied to the airside environment.

“In an airport, in that aircraft apron area, it’s a totally different dance. You’re not going to have kids on skateboards. But you’re going to have a wing-walker and fuel truck,” Marx says. “The computers need to know what is commonly encountered in its environment and how to respond to safety-critical items and people.”

With a partnership formed between ThorDrive and CVG, equipment was needed to conduct testing.

When Wollard International was acquired by investors in 2019, the new owners sought ways to expand its portfolio while building on the company’s established reputation.

Technology was one such area the company could improve, according to Tim Taylor, director of business development at Wollard International.

“We just kind of had our feelers out, watching and seeing what could be done,” Taylor says, adding ThorDrive approached Wollard in early 2020 with their goals to bring on-road autonomy capabilities to the ramp.

“We all just kind of hit it off,” Taylor recalls.

Using the technology initially developed in South Korea in 2016 and further developed in Silicon Valley from 2018 on, ThorDrive has continued developing its platform at CVG.

“ThorDrive’s been here for just over a year. The autonomous GSE project was started in about February of ’20 and we released the proof of concept in mid-December,” Shelton says.

The next step, explains Shelton, is furthering development and gathering additional data.

“It’s a constant feedback loop of more data, finessing the program, if you will, and also stress testing,” Shelton says.

“We’re at the point where it can run in the airport environment autonomously, pulling baggage carts,” he continues. “We’ll continue to do the last bit of our development this year and we intend to have our first saleable units available by the end of ’21.”

“We’ve been very impressed with first testing it outside the gate and now inside the gate,” says Marx. “They’re constantly doing further testing in our long-term lot, which due to COVID is currently repurposed as a mock-up of our aircraft gate facilities. This allows ThorDrive to make programming changes, confirm redundant safety systems and other testing implications prior to operating in the live gate environment.”

Equipping the Tractor

The ability to retrofit ThorDrive’s technology to existing vehicles aided the project. ThorDrive installed its system on a Ford Transit van to help map the airport and applied the technology to a Wollard International M40 diesel baggage tractor to create the prototype for airside operations.

“For the vehicle to be able to ‘see,’ we use a combination of LiDAR [light detection and ranging] and camera-vision. The sensor suite is able to detect and measure the changing environment, including vehicles, aircraft, objects and people. Then it’s our software that interprets that data and responds appropriately given the situation,” Shelton explains.

“Over most of 2020, the work we’ve done is developing – first – the digital maps of the area and then essentially teaching the software how to recognize things that are in its environment,” he adds. “For example, it recognizes the airplane and what to do when it sees it and it responds as programmed. Also, the very same for wing-walkers, other vehicles, stop signs and things like that.”

With fairly standard features, including a 4,000 lb. drawbar pull, 2-wheel drive, 2-wheel steer and front and rear hitches, it was primarily the cab-forward design of Wollard’s M-40 tractor that lent itself to ThorDrive’s technology.

“Really it becomes a function of being able to locate all of the sensor packages in more opportune locations,” Taylor explains. “To mount the sensor packages on a conventional tractor, where the operator sits behind the engine, there’s not as many mounting opportunities for the sensor package.

“That’s how this particular unit was selected,” Taylor continues. “The cameras and the LiDAR and the radars were mounted all around the cab and around the windshield of the unit.”

The tractor is also fitted with bright LEDs, which indicate how the tractor is operating.

“Essentially, when they’re green, it’s in autonomous mode and operating normally. That way it signals to the people around it, ‘Don’t be surprised if it starts to move.’ In Red Mode, it would mean that it’s encountered something that’s forced a stop, or it’s encountered something it’s not sure about.”

What’s more, there are emergency e-stop buttons in the cab and on the outside of the vehicle, ensuring that anyone can power down the tractor in an emergency.

With ThorDrive’s sensors and software, gathering the data for artificial intelligence and machine learning, Wollard’s primary role in the project has been assisting with hardware integration, including integrating autonomous tech with control mechanisms for steering, speed monitoring and braking.

The progress made so far indicates opportunities for other autonomous GSE units.

“We’ve got two more tractors in production that will eventually head toward ThorDrive,” Taylor says, noting these include an electric baggage tractor.

“We’ve certainly talked about other pieces of GSE kit, be it belt-loaders, even to some degree tractors, pushbacks, towing tractors, cargo tractors,” he continues. “But it’s crawl, walk, run at this point. So, baggage tractors are our crawl stage.”

The Testing Environment

ThorDrive was able to demo its technology in December 2020 after months of mapping the airport and acquiring sufficient data.

Using a Ford Transit van to collect data and map the airport allowed ThorDrive to apply the information gathered to the operation of Wollard’s baggage tractor.

“They first drove and mapped out the area of the non-movement, then they trained those computers for hours and hours to make sure they had every scenario. Even then, each subsequent drive in autonomous mode continues to feed the computers added scenarios. It’s always learning, while maintaining maximum ramp speed limits, stopping at every stop and following other rules of the vehicle service roads,” Marx says.

“There was an accelerated opportunity due to COVID, because of the reduced operations,” she says. “There was an ability to have more access on the aircraft apron area and around the gates. I think they’re lightyears or at least many months ahead of other competition when it comes to knowing how to work in an airport environment, dynamically – not just like a roller coaster going on the same path.”

After beginning the project, CVG enacted an ordinance in October 2020, officially allowing autonomous equipment to operate on airport property.

“Just like any law or rules, on one hand it can be a rule where people feel stifled,” Marx says of the ordinance. “For me, I see it as something that, ‘Hey, you can use this, we support it and we expect to collaborate with you.’ Not only do we promote this as an ordinance that you can move forward on. But we also have companies actively working on the campus and looking to partner for further development and deployment.”

What’s more, Marx says the ordinance brought attention to safety personnel and airside workers that an autonomous vehicle was in operation.

“If they see something moving without a person, they’re not taken aback, and they know about it,” she says. “It’s an early-stage cultural shift to engage staff rather than surprise.”

Marx notes that airport officials received feedback from airport tenants, including passenger and cargo airlines that had an interest in learning more about autonomy.

“So, we also wanted to make sure that we were able to say, ‘Yes, this is something you can do,’” she says.

While several stakeholders were curious about autonomous vehicles, there is still the important element of building trust in the technology to encourage adoption.

“ThorDrive’s team, they jumped through every possible scenario,” says Marx. “They learned how to drive in the airport environment through our police officers. They worked with our airfield operations guys to make sure that they could map areas at certain times of the day. They completed all of the badging and the insurance requirements, in general.

“ThorDrive has taken every step necessary to make sure that they are able to work in the airport. They even built outstanding operating procedures for their own team for operating in an airport for added security and safety. Of course, important elements like these are building blocks to be learned by other ventures instead of starting from scratch each time.”

“Safety is one of the selling points of this technology, so it’s obviously very important that we test as much as possible, we gather as much data as possible,” Shelton adds, noting ThorDrive’s on-road origins have helped them develop the technology for the safety-critical airport environment. “You’re always integrating anything you learned, coming up with new scenarios. But certainly, handling the basics.”

Another challenge standing in the way of adopting autonomy is the fear that robots will replace the personnel working at the airport. Marx says machines are not replacing people and it is important to educate staff about the potential autonomy provides.

“You still have employees. But AVs [automated vehicles] are going to allow you to do your job more effectively, and they’re going to reduce routine and menial tasks,” she says. “Or it allows one person to focus their efforts in other critical parts of the operation where staff is needed and hopefully level up in their career or job by becoming a technician of sorts.”

Being able to refocus labor to more high value activities can prove valuable, agrees Taylor, using an expedited baggage run as an example.

“If I’m at Gate 14 and I’ve got a bag that needs to be transferred to Gate 21, as opposed to having it go back through the bag room, it’s possible to send a vehicle on an expedite from Gate 14 to Gate 21 autonomously,” Taylor explains. “There are extraordinarily creative ways to use this technology to our advantage.”

Cincinnati Demo

With data collected and the tractor outfitted with the sensor suite, ThorDrive demonstrated its proof of concept at the end of 2020.

“That was the first time the public really knew who ThorDrive was and what we’re doing in Cincinnati,” Shelton says.

CVG’s senior leadership rode in the Ford Transit van to first get an idea of what that feels like and how the technology functions. Marx says opportunity to learn about the engineering and see it up-close was very helpful.

“Then when we had the tractor out in the aircraft apron and gate areas, it definitely gives you a shock-factor. There’s plenty of people who stop and ask what’s going on. But I think people also recognize the efficiencies and the opportunity for that next revolution of ‘How will we do business and how do we move things forward?’ Recognizing the restraints on being able to hire and find employees for all of the roles that are available on campus,” she says.

“To ride in the vehicle or to ride behind the vehicle while it’s in autonomous mode is both pretty spooky and pretty amazing at the same time,” Taylor says. “You see this ghost tractor operating across the ramp, and it’s like ‘What’s going on here?’

“But when it comes to its destination, or a vehicle crosses the road or a plane comes, it just stops and holds automatically as any human operator should, which is not necessarily always the case.”

According to Taylor, safety data is being collected to show the business case for the number of accidents that can be eliminated through autonomy because an autonomous vehicle is only going to do what it is programmed to do.

“We’re going to have a lot more constrained behavior on the part of the vehicle because of the way it’s operated,” Taylor says. “We should be able to realize a measurable reduction in accidents.”

The first question regarding autonomy is always about safety, agrees Shelton. However, he notes that as technology has progressed and people become more familiar with the concept, the conversation has turned toward value. He says it is not about having a “cool toy.” Autonomy needs to bring efficiencies to a business.

“Airports and airlines always have an interesting relationship,” Marx says. “I’ve noticed more and more, airlines and any of the vendors that work with GSE, they’re excited and they lean in.”

Representatives from ThorDrive, Wollard and CVG all expressed optimism for what will come from the initial trials in Cincinnati.

Taylor emphasizes the opportunity for autonomy to be applied to additional equipment.

“We really are thinking in terms of an autonomous ecosystem, whereby, a good portion of the GSE fleet on the ramp could potentially become automated in this way,” Taylor says. “That’s really where we’re trying to think in terms of, and how we can accommodate it with our own design. What would facilitate that development?”

Marx adds that CVG officials’ faith in the technology has initiated additional research and development for more use cases around the airport. The R&D for the next phases of autonomy will begin later this year, according to Shelton.

As an airport, explains Marx, CVG needs to ensure the infrastructure can support what is needed for future developments. Steps need to be taken to ensure 5G or LTE is available everywhere, including more remote parts of the airport. She goes on to explain that high-volume data transmissions, such as vehicle to vehicle, over advanced cellular networks will be critical to mass deployment of autonomous vehicles in the future.

“I think you’ll notice more and more cities and airports using the term smart-campus or smart-city. If you want to have innovation, if you want to have new things coming on your campus. You got to make sure that infrastructure is there for what is needed,” Marx says.

ThorDrive, which is currently seeking Series A funding, is looking to grow its business in the aviation market and has begun mapping out other projects for 2021 where CVG has defined a need.

“It’s pretty exciting,” Marx says. “The other innovations to come of this work are very exciting.”