Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Self-driving tugs will change airports

As I've mentioned before, self-driving cars have been analyzed and forecasted to death, which is why I'm always on the lookout for curious or niche angles to the technology. TechCrunch today reports on a new company that seeks to deploy self-driving pallets in factory settings:
They’re not exactly Teslas or Google self-driving cars. Instead, Clearpath makes vehicles that autonomously move boxes and pallets around factories, warehouses and distribution centers.
When it comes to self-driving car development, reducing complexity is key. Google and company are making huge strides in developing passenger vehicles that can operate in all-purpose, chaotic street environments, but a simpler, cheaper development path runs through places with highly-controlled environments: factories, warehouses, and airports.

Fitting self-driving cars into narrow tasks within existing industrial processes is a no-brainer, especially considering that employees can be trained to safely interact with them (as opposed to random pedestrians and other motorists). Deployment of these technologies is already expanding rapidly.

The article does mention applications for airport shuttles, but I think the real opportunity in aviation is for ramp operations tugs.

Baggage handlers drive a lot

At a typical airport, the 'ramp agent' job involves a variety of tasks, many of which involve mechanistic driving that is tailor-made for substitution by robot. In small airports, ramp agents may informally switch between dozens of tasks in the course of a single "turn" (aircraft arrival to aircraft departure). In larger hubs, scale efficiencies kick in and tasks become highly specialized, with a single employee spending their entire shift doing one thing.

When an aircraft arrives, ramp agents unload bags into empty carts, which are then theoretically carried off to their proper destinations. Most bags will be deposited at a centralized conveyor belt, with some being transported directly to another airplane (for those quick transfers). At least 50-60% of the labor-hours involved with this arrival phase involve driving from place to place along highly-controlled routes. This is perfect for robot tugs. Employees will load up a cart with arrived baggage, type in the desired locations, and off it goes.

After an aircraft's arrival, it prepares to depart. Some people work in centralized 'bag rooms', where they load passenger luggage and cargo onto carts. At least 20-30% of these labor-hours are devoted solely to driving luggage from the bag room to departing aircraft. These driving routes are also highly controlled, so it's not at all difficult to imagine this task being totally automated. Bag room employees load up a robot tug, type in the gate number, and off it goes.

Another set of tasks involves loading bags into the cargo bins of the aircraft themselves. The driving here tends to be short and chaotic, and might include things like positioning bag carts and other equipment. Most of these driving tasks are not routinized enough to accept robots anytime soon, but even still perhaps 5-10% of the labor-hours could be automated. After successfully loading luggage into the aircraft bins, robot tugs would remove empty carts and return them to the bag room, freeing up valuable employee time to assist with gate-check luggage and perform final safety and security checks.

The final big task is pushing a departing aircraft off of the gate and into the taxiway area. The ability to automate this with robot tugs is highly conditional on the physical design of airports themselves; most newer airports are spacious enough to eliminate complex maneuvers and collision risk, while those located in dense cities tend to be size-constrained and architecturally dysfunctional. Even still, the economic benefit to automating here transcends simple labor cost savings: in most airports, tugs are disconnected after pushback, with aircraft using their own engines to power and navigate the taxiways en route to the runway. Using jet fuel in this way costs billions upon billions of dollars every year, and if the US were ever to implement a carbon pricing scheme it would almost certainly speed up the deployment of automated (or pilot-controlled) pushback tugs by tipping the cost-benefit logic of self-powered taxiing.

In general, I would estimate that even minor cost reductions and technology improvements in self-driving tugs would expose probably 20-30% of total ramp agent labor-hours to immediate substitution. This is not revolutionary, of course, and will probably happen gradually without explicit labor force reductions (unless bag-stacking robot arms are added to the mix...).

Perhaps the productivity gains will result in higher wages for these jobs, which overwhelmingly draw from low-skill prime-age men, a demographic group that has struggled mightily in recent decades. Certainly airports will remain huge sources of decent service-sector employment for quite some time.

Airlines are highly regulated and notoriously penny-pinching, so it's difficult so say if the adoption of self-driving tugs will be constrained or stymied in some way. But the economic logic seems unstoppable.

Although the US is probably on the cusp of an unavoidable wave of airport refurbishments (some major terminal expansions are already underway), if a second round of massive infrastructure building moves to production before self-driving tug systems become viable, post hoc integration might create additional disincentives to adoption. Newer airports in Eurasia and Africa might well end up being built from the ground-up with self-driving tugs in mind.

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