Fraport said it is trialling an autonomous cargo tractor at Frankfurt Airport as part of efforts to automate some operations at Europe's busiest hub.
The airport operator said the aim of the trial — which will take several weeks — is to determine whether and under what conditions an autonomous vehicle can support regular baggage and cargo operations.
It noted that the trial of the electric vehicle would operate on an eight-kilometre-long test route within Frankfurt Airport's secure area.
"Autonomous vehicles are a very promising future option for us as an airport operator. We've already trialled self-driving vehicles in some areas. But deployment on the apron on such a long route is a completely new dimension," said Eric Agthe, project manager for process and product development at Fraport, noting that safety will be the top priority during the trial.
"The fact that we are tackling these kinds of innovative projects, despite the challenging operating conditions, once again emphasizes our role as a future-focused company," he added.
In the announcement, Fraport noted that the test route starts in the eastern section of Frankfurt Airport's apron in the baggage handling facility at Terminal 2 before heading southwards and approaching the future Terminal 3.
The trial section is divided into three components, each of which presents particular challenges for the autonomous vehicle: these include operations inside the baggage handling facility amidst other traffic and people, as well as in the open, where there are few other vehicles.
To ensure the outcome reflects real-life conditions with sufficient complexity, the test drives will take place both during the day and at night in different types of weather.
During the test operations, Fraport said the vehicle would operate at a maximum speed of 13 kilometres per hour and would tow a maximum of three baggage trailers or two large cargo trailers.
A safety driver who has received special training and certification for the project will be present on each test drive.
Boost to ground handling operations
Fraport said autonomous vehicles could also provide significant support in daily ground-handling operations.
"For Fraport, this project is of high importance because of its potential to facilitate more efficient deployment of staff in the future. Due to the size of the airport apron, our employees often have to cover long distances. If parts of these routes could be operated using autonomous vehicles, this would give the Ground Services teams more flexibility to handle flights even more efficiently," said Dennis Stein, vice president of division development, Logistics, and IT.
The airport operator said the trial with the autonomous baggage and cargo tractor will run until the end of March 2023.