Semcon is developing an autonomous tractor to keep runway edge lights clear of snow as part of a research project investigating new airport maintenance technology. Automation can be used to reduce costs while also increasing efficiency and quality. The technology has now been tested for the first time at Örnsköldsvik Airport in Sweden.

The AVAP (Autonomous Vehicles for AirPorts) research project is a collaboration project that aims to demonstrate how vehicle automation can safely help to reduce costs and make airport operation more efficient. In the long run, this is intended to allow additional smaller airports to remain open and reduce delays for passengers.

“Our part of the project involves developing an autonomous tractor designed to keep runway edge lights clear of snow. This may not seem like much, but the runway gets closed down if 15% of the lights are non-operational, and this causes significant delays and costs. But more seriously, this presents major safety risks as well,” said Anne Piegsa, Technical Project Manager at Semcon.

Other parts of the project relate to monitoring solutions using drones, automatic mowing, and friction measurement systems. These systems and vehicles have now been demonstrated together for the first time at Örnsköldsvik Airport (OER).

“There is a great deal of innovative force in the region, and combined with short lead times, this has helped when establishing the OER test arena. We can collaborate with partners working with aviation digitization and automation and increase aircraft availability and efficiency with the research activities being pursued by the Swedish Air Navigation Services Provider LFV,” said Björn Wahlström, Head of Research at the Swedish Air Navigation Services Provider LFV.

Snow clearing at airports is crucial. Takeoff and landing runways must be completely clear of snow if flights are to depart and land on time. At present, airports always need to be prepared. They have to have staff on standby who can come in and clear snow whenever it is needed.

“One of the problems with clearing snow around runway edge lights is that a great deal of precision is required on surfaces that are not always smooth. This is time-consuming work that can be streamlined by means of our autonomous solution. This will also free up staff capacity, allowing them to work on other safety-related tasks that are not suitable for automation,” said Piegsa.

The tractor used for the project is a Lundberg 6250, which is around 2.4 m (7.9 ft) tall, 5 m (16 ft) long (without attachments), and weighs just over 6 tonnes (6.6 tons). Besides sensors for scanning the environment, it has been fitted with a computer for intelligent control and management of the commands sent to it. This tractor is given a plowing task by an operator via 4G and then calculates how to complete the task, constantly communicating its position and status. Air traffic controllers can also monitor and communicate with the vehicle. The control system used was developed by Yeti Snow Technology, co-owned by Semcon, Husqvarna Group, and Øveraasen, and is currently undergoing testing as part of projects involving autonomous snowplows at an airport for Norwegian airport operator Avinor.

The Swedish Air Navigation Services Provider LFV, OER, RISE, Mid Sweden University, Swedavia, Semcon, Husqvarna, Combitech, and FlyPulse are all involved in the research project.