Autonomous snowplows debut at Norwegian airport
Keeping airports clear of snow is a surprisingly expensive job intended to minimize even more expensive flight delays. To make the process more efficient, Swedish tech company Semcon is developing the Yeti – an autonomous snowplow that is the first to clear snow from an operating airport. The demonstration took place at Fagernes Airport in Leirin, Norway, 200 km (125 mi) north of Oslo and involved a pair of the self-driving plows working as a team.
Snow is one element that can shut down an airport in short order. The US FAA regards snow in any quantity present on a runway as a hazard, so most airports in snowy latitudes have facilities to remove it as quickly as possible to prevent flight delays.
The problem is that this doesn't just involve a costly investment in plows, but also in trained crews that must be available on a 24-hour basis when snow storms threaten. In very cold regions, these costs are even higher because in subzero temperatures plows that don't have their own heated garages need crews to keep them constantly running so they don't freeze and pack up when needed.
Since airports are carefully planned and controlled environments, clearing snow seems like a logical opportunity for automation. This week, two self-driving Yetis were deployed at Fagernes Airport to demonstrate the current state of the art. Each machine was 20 m (65 ft) long and 5.5 m (18 ft) wide and as a team were able to clear around 670 football fields per hour in a variety of weather conditions.
One particular advance is that the Yeti is capable of gang plowing. If a team of plows work separately, all they manage to do is shove the snow from one side of the runway to the other and back again. In gang plowing, the plows line up across the length of the runway in a diagonal pattern. When they start to move, the first plow pushes the snow in front of the second, which pushes it in front of the third, and so on until it's deposited off the tarmac.
"We have designed a control system that sets up digital patterns for autonomous snow clearance at airports," says John Emil Halden, Semcon project manager. "The system can then download these patterns and monitor a number of vehicles that navigate using RTK GPS, an accurate form of position measurement, and communicate using 4G modems."
The video below shows the autonomous Yeti in action.