Oklahoma Company offers permanent aircraft towing system
As airlines continually look for ways to reduce fuel consumption for economic and environmental reasons, an American company is coming up with an unorthodox solution for taxiing. Oklahoma-based Aircraft Towing Systems World-Wide (ATS) is developing a permanently installed infrastructure system that would allow aircraft to shut down their engines at the taxiway for automated towing to the gate.
The system, which has been developed over the past six years in cooperation with Oklahoma State University’s New Product Development Center, involves an electric traction cart that runs on an underground monorail attached to an above-ground tow cart . According to company CEO Vincent Howie, the system would simply drive an aircraft’s nose gear onto the dolly, which would then lift via hydraulic pumps and automatically chock the nose wheels in place. The traction cart, powered by electrical circuits embedded in the walls of the underground channel would then provide the motive power to move the aircraft.
ATS uses a test runway at Oklahoma’s Ardmore Industrial Airpark consisting of a 358-foot-long powered channel with two straight runs flanking a 90-degree turn to test the system’s gate pushback capabilities. The company acquired a decommissioned Boeing 727 for use as a towing test subject.
Last month, ATS powered up the tow dolly motor for the first time at its Tulsa, Oklahoma plant and will test its link and connectivity with the tow dolly. It plans to deliver the combined unit to Ardmore and begin in-channel testing by August, with towing of the 727 to follow by the end of the summer. Exhibiting in Farnborough with the Oklahoma Chamber of Commerce (Booth #2322, 2523), ATS has a six-month testing schedule and plans a public showing in Q1 2023.
Howie characterized the system as capital intensive, with the installation of the channel costing $1,000 per linear foot. The company has developed a simulator model that will show optimal channel placement based on traffic flow and gate movements and calculate channel lengths. Additionally, each pull cart/tow cart tandem would cost around $250,000. “We would sit down with each airport and calculate the maximum number of planes that would be on the ground at any given time, and that would probably be the high side of what we would do for the number of pull and tow dollies. carts,” Howie said AIN. Since the channel is under the ground, aircraft can continue to operate normally at the airport without using the system if necessary.
Howie explained that the system would allow operators to quickly recoup their costs based solely on fuel savings. “If you think about it, 80% of commercial fleets are made up of [Boeing] 737 and [Airbus] A320s and these planes consume about 9 gallons of fuel per minute while taxiing, and the average taxi time in the United States is between 16 and 27 minutes depending on the airport,” he said. Large airports can accommodate hundreds of thousands of movements per year, so eliminating fuel burn while taxiing would result in hundreds of millions of dollars in saved fuel costs and untold amounts of CO2 emissions. The manufacturer also notes that having the system control all aircraft movements during taxi and gate operations can reduce the risk of human error and increase the pace of activity.
In addition to gate arrivals and pushback, operators can use the ATS system for specific point-to-point transfers, such as passing aircraft through de-icing loops. Howie described another example of an airline that has a maintenance facility in Tulsa, located more than a mile from the terminal. There, handling an aircraft for night maintenance could involve up to 16 people. Installing the ATS system as a branch route to the maintenance facility could reduce the manpower requirement to one person.
The company is still in talks with several airports in the United States, including Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City and Thurgood Marshall International Airport in Baltimore/Washington. As it ponders future expansion, Denver International Airport is facing resistance from its airline tenants over plans to locate Runways 6 and 7 three miles from the terminal due to associated taxiing costs. Through an airport consultant, ATS pitches the system as a way to improve the situation, having them tow to the runways instead of taxiing on their own.
In Spain, the company is also working on a proposal to install a pushback system at one of the gates of Madrid-Barajas International Airport.
Depending on the airport and the size of aircraft it can accommodate, ATS will offer the system in three sizes: large for everything from an Airbus A380 to a regional jet; medium for aircraft up to the ubiquitous 737 and A320; and small for regional and business jets. “Not every airport has the capacity to handle 747s, and with a smaller size you can have a smaller channel,” Howie said. “The channel really drives a lot of the cost.”