The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

Automation Could Be Available for Ground Handling of eVTOL Aircraft

At the conclusion of a year-long joint project with Uber Elevate, California start-up Moonware is stepping up its plans to develop a fully autonomous, electrically powered aircraft tow tug. The company says the vehicle will be suitable for moving eVTOL aircraft at vertiports, such as those planned by Uber, but will also be able to handle larger airliners.

Moonware plans to make vehicles that in the business aviation and urban air mobility sectors will be able to tow aircraft up to a weight of around 10,000 pounds, with larger tugs planned for airliners with pulling power of up to around 600,000 pounds. The tugs will operate autonomously using software and control systems developed by the San Francisco-based company and are expected to be ready to enter service in 2023.

The Moonware vehicles are being designed to move autonomously between predetermined waypoints, such as gates, taxiways, and runways, that would be designated by air traffic controllers at each site. Any required path updates will be issued via the company’s cloud-based traffic management network that will draw on real-time data showing each vehicle’s position and status. The system will use this data to update each vehicle’s route to tow a particular aircraft, avoid a potential hazard, or recharge the batteries, as necessary.

The vehicles also will use a patented mechanism that leverages the weight of each aircraft’s front nose gear to generate the necessary torque for towing operations. Moonware says this also allows the vehicle to accommodate different types of landing gear and produces less structural fatigue than the clamps and pin-latch mechanisms used by many current tow tugs.

According to cofounder and CEO Javier Vidal, the Moonware system will use multiple Lidar (light detecting and ranging) sensors to avoid collisions with other aircraft, ground support vehicles, and buildings. He claimed that eVTOL aircraft will need to be towed autonomously because most of the new designs will not be able to taxi or maneuver themselves on the ground without having the weight penalty of motorized landing gear or the extra power consumption required to taxi using their own rotors, fans, or propellers.

“This is because most eVTOLs are electric and battery heavy, which makes them very weight restricted,” Vidal told FutureFlight. “What a lot of manufacturers are realizing is that it’s advantageous to offload as many functionalities as they can to the ground.”

Moonware claims that the self-driving tow tugs have the potential to cut ground handling operating costs for some aircraft operators. It also says that operations will be safer, more efficient, and quiet, as well as resulting in reduced carbon emissions.

The company maintains that airport or vertiport environments are well-suited to the automation of functions such as ground handling that require strict protocols. The use of robotics technology is also supported by the availability of clearly designated pathways and taxiways that simplify vehicle perception and localization.

Moonware’s seven-strong team includes specialists in automation, robotics, and automotive technology from companies including Uber, Waymo, Google, Amazon, Otto Trucks, Mercedes-Benz, and Corvette-GM.

In the air transport sector, several other companies have developed alternatives to aircraft taxiing under their own power, but none are based on as high a degree of autonomy as what Moonware intends to deliver. These options include the electric Wheeltug self-taxi system, which is set for service entry in 2021, and the Taxibot tug from IAI, which is already in trial operations at several airports.