A Boeing 747 burns a ton of fuel while taxiing. This electric towing

One of the most tedious parts of flying is waiting for the plane to taxi along the runway before takeoff or after landing. But it’s more than a waste of time. It is also a big source of carbon emissions.

The average taxi time in the United States is between 16 and 27 minutes, which represents approximately 5% of the fuel consumption of a flight. A Boeing 747, for example, consumes 1 ton of fuel during a 15-minute taxi. But a new towing system could bring that number closer to zero.

[Image: courtesy ATS]

Known as the Aircraft Towing System (ATS), the concept promises fuel savings and lower carbon emissions when planes are on the ground. It works something like this: after the plane lands, the pilot drives the nose wheel of the plane (the landing wheel at the front of the plane) onto a tow dolly, where it is fixed in place. At this point, the engines can be turned off and the plane is “pulled” along an underground rail system set in channels 50 feet deep. Think of it as a two-part system: above ground, the tow dolly connects to the front wheel; below ground it connects to an electric traction car which travels along the track channels, pulling the aircraft from the runway to the gate (or vice versa). It’s a big undertaking, but according to a 2019 report, nearly 10% of aircraft emissions could be reduced by simply fixing taxiing inefficiencies.

[Image: courtesy ATS]

ATS is the brainchild of Polish businessman Stan Malicki, who in 2015 teamed up with Vince Howie, then director of aerospace and defense at the Oklahoma Department of Commerce. The company is now based in Oklahoma, where Tinker Air Force Base and American Airlines maintenance stations are located.

If an airport installed the complete system, which would take aircraft from the gates to the runways, ATS would dig a network of trench-like channels, about 4 feet wide, down the middle of the taxiways and branching off to each gate . Inside the canals, an electric traction car would race alongside a monorail, pulling the above-ground cart—and the plane—with it. The channels would be covered with two steel plates separated by a 1.5 inch slot where the pull car and tow dolly connect.

[Photo: courtesy ATS]

A prototype of the technology is currently installed at Ardmore Industrial Airpark, midway between Dallas and Oklahoma City, and will be completed in late April. The prototype focuses on a small part of the system called pushback (a procedure that simply pushes the aircraft away from the gate). It consists of a 360 foot long channel with two straight sections and a large 90 degree curve at the gate. The prototype system will cost around $1 million, but Howie notes that these are one-time costs that do not reflect the actual price, which he estimates at around $650,000 per door, including a tow dolly and a towing car.

[Image: ATS]

For an airport the size of Chicago O’Hare or Dallas/Fort Worth, a complete ATS setup would cost around $150 million, but Howie says it could save airlines $491 million in fuel burn over of a year. He estimates that it would take about as long to completely overhaul a large airport, or about 90 days to retrofit a few gates and install just the pushback system. (The company is working to make the system eligible for the Airport Improvement Program, which is injecting $3.2 billion into modernizing airport facilities nationwide.)

[Image: ATS]

In the meantime, ATS has two main competitors. TaxiBot, a human-operated vehicle that can tow an aircraft from the gate to the runway while its engines are idling, is currently in use at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam and Delhi International Airport in India. . But Howie says once the vehicle has towed the plane to the runway, it has to return to the gate, which could cause traffic on the taxiways. Meanwhile, WheelTug requires an all-new nose wheel, which would require modifications to planes that would make them heavier and less fuel efficient in the air.

In comparison, the ATS has been designed to adapt to all types of aircraft, from commercial to military, and provides considerable fuel savings, in particular for the Boeing 737 and Airbus 380, which represent 80% of the fleets. commercial. However, most of the savings would go to the airlines, so convincing both parties could prove tricky: the system benefits airlines more directly than airports, but airlines cannot use it without airports n are investing in infrastructure.

Howie says the company is in talks with airports from California to Colorado, including one inside a national park. (He wouldn’t divulge details, but the only such commercial airport in the country is Jackson Hole, located in Grand Teton National Park). “There are small airports that want to lead the United States in environmental matters,” Howie says. “The environmental pressure from this particular airport is enormous as it is inside a national park.”

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