Ground Support Equipment Reportby Linnea Ahlgren | June 14, 2021

Autonomous Electric Powered Tugs
Autonomous Electric Powered Tugs Courtesy:

What will the "new normal" on the apron and taxiways look like? What developments will GSE operators look to in order to emerge from the crisis more robust, more efficient, and more sustainable than ever before?

The past year has given the entire world of aviation pause. Aircraft have flown en masse to long-term storage. Airport operators and maintenance managers have faced new challenges of surplus and out-of-service assets. While it has been a time of tremendous crisis and hardship, many have used the unexpected lull in operations to step back, reshuffle, and reboot. Times like these especially prompt a review of overall procedures. If every ounce of efficiency counted before, then this is doubly true for the emerging era of post-pandemic aviation recovery.

Albeit unwelcome, this opportunity to survey and reassess ground support equipment fleets is likely to shape the world of ground handling services moving forward. But what exactly will the “new normal” on the apron and taxiways look like? What developments will GSE operators look to in order to emerge from the crisis more robust, more efficient, and more sustainable than ever before?

Digitization of GSE asset management

In 2017, The Economist published an article titled “The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data.” While airliners may still (mostly) fly on conventional jet fuel, data collection and digitization supported by telematics and machine learning is entirely revolutionizing resource and asset management.

From ground handling to maintenance scheduling, systems that harness the power of data will increasingly support airport and aircraft maintenance operations worldwide. Fleet management technology such as that provided by Zafire, XOPS Airport Management Systems, Amadeus, and Airport Research Center, among others, will help keep an eye on potential asymmetric asset utilization and plan for predictive maintenance, limiting unforeseen delays and costs.

Low-power geolocation solutions, such as those offered by startup Hoopo, allow for efficient real-time and immediate localization of idle GSE, be that aircraft tugs, refueling tankers, or hydraulic mules. When connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) and combined with technology known as geofencing, this lets managers keep continuous track of assets with immediate alerts if they venture outside of their designated area.

“We are seeing more opportunities to lease GSE with Telematics – this gives the Maintenance and Ground Support Crew the ability to track where their vehicles are using a hand held device, ensure they are in the correct place, and control access to prevent unauthorized use and that includes on our belt loaders and baggage tractors.” – Matt Weitzel / XCED GSE /

Real-time tracking prevents unauthorized equipment misplacement. It also cuts down the time spent on search-and-rescue efforts locating devices and vehicles manually, which can otherwise require multiple communication instances and cause significant delays. In 2019, IoT in the aviation market reached $593 million. Furthermore, it is expected to grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 21.9% through 2025.

Semi-robotic, autonomous and electric aircraft tugs

Data and cloud-driven developments are not the only potentially disrupting and cost-saving features in the pipeline. As in so many other areas, robotics is set to play an increasingly more prominent role in ground handling and aircraft maintenance operations.

The technology is already in operation with TaxiBot’s semi-robotic pilot-controlled undercarriage system. This can release the aircraft much later in the pushback procedure, and closer to the runway. Since 2018, it can be seen galavanting around Delhi Airport. The airport recently reported it had completed 1,000 movements with the TaxiBot, saving 586 tons of CO2 emissions for the environment and over 200 000 liters of aviation turbine fuel for airlines.

Schiphol Airport also took delivery of its first TaxiBot in April last year. Following a six-month trial at a very quiet airport and simulations with busiest-day scenarios, the team identified two significant challenges to broader scale deployment of this form of ground-based sustainable taxiing. Firstly, airplane tug driver demand far exceeded availability when more time was needed per driver for each take-off.

Secondly, the TaxiBot, while not visible from the cockpit, is almost as wide as the fuselage, which causes an issue with docking procedures. While the driver can take over control from the pilot if necessary, this alternative is time-consuming. If docking complications happen with multiple aircraft simultaneously or in a row, this will cause scheduling issues and subsequent delays.

Several onboard systems for sustainable taxiing have also been trialed, such as the Electric Green Taxiing System (EGTS), which uses the aircraft’s own Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) by Honeywell and Safran. The joint venture completed demonstrators, which, unfortunately, despite interest and support from several airlines, never made it into production.

However, a similar system called WheelTug is under development by a company with the same name. Airlines have already reserved over 2,000 units for Boeing 737s and the Airbus A320 family while awaiting the system’s projected entry into service in the second half of 2022. WheelTug places an electric motor inside the front gear wheel, allowing the aircraft to drive itself. While this adds some extra weight to the plane, according to its manufacturer, it can save as many as eight minutes of schedule padding for a single flight.

Meanwhile, Californian startup Moonware is planning to make fully robotic and electric aircraft tug vehicles that will be able to tow even dual-aisle jets of up to 600,000 lbs. That is enough to push a Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner with a MTOW of 560,000 lbs. First, however, the company is targeting the business jet and urban mobility market with a towing vehicle for up to 10,000 lbs aircraft. The patented technology will leverage the weight of the front nose gear to generate the necessary torque, which will reduce structural fatigue when compared with clamps and pin-latch mechanisms.

“In GSE, we are seeing a new focus on electric equipment from tugs to ground power units. This is going to accelerate in the future as we see new environmental policies from the governments and companies.” - John Werner / Carolina GSE /

Going green with eGSE

Despite the recent bump in the road, the market for ground support equipment is predicted to grow from $4.0 billion in 2020 to close to $10.2 billion by 2025. Just as for aviation at large, that growth needs to be environmentally sustainable. Electric GSE, or eGSE, has been around for quite some time and is one of the tools operators have at their disposal.

While the infrastructure requires some initial investment, once it is in place, the increase in efficiency will soon help recuperate expenses. Electric aircraft tugs such as the Eagle Electric ET-12 and ET-16 or LEKTRO from JBT, can be charged anywhere in the airport or maintenance facility area without being dependent on the location of a fueling station.

As batteries improve, even recharging becomes less of an issue. Nordic aviation ground handling service provider Aviator has just introduced a fully electric 12-ton chassis from Vestergaard, capable of carrying a number of GSE applications. Powered by a 40 kWh lithium-ion battery, it can drive at up to 50 km/h and operate for 12 hours without recharging.

Going green is not just about using electric ground support equipment, however. Sustainability efforts need to be built around a larger strategy to reduce emissions from operations wherever the opportunity exists. For instance, diesel-powered GSE, such at the Textron GT35A or the JBT B250, is far more efficient than its petrol-powered counterparts. Governmental mandates such as the FAA’s Airport Environmental Program currently provide support to implement the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and for transitioning towards more sustainable operations.

From aircraft tugs and potable water trucks to tripod jacks, tire cages and wheel-brake dollys, ground support equipment is the often unsung hero of aviation when compared to its winged relatives. However, without dependable, top-notch GSE assets, airport and MRO operations would not be able to function and help connect the world through the engineering marvel that is flight.

As the industry will continue to function in a realm of uncertainty in the near future, the very least it can ask is that its GSE fleets be reliable and efficient, supporting safe and sustainable operations.

“We focus our efforts on manufacturing specialty maintenance tooling and GSE. Maintenance Professionals come to Alberth when they need a solution to a specific problem. Normally it’s to make a task easier, faster to complete, cleaner and safer like our Hydraulic Wheel-Brake Dolly.” - Rudy Alberth / Alberth Aviation /