London’s Gatwick Airport (LGW) is set to launch trials of electric-powered autonomous shuttle vehicles in the summer of 2018. It will be the first airport in the world to test such vehicles for transporting staff across the airfield, in the goal of making airfield fleet management more efficient and saving on operational costs.

The trial, thought to be the first of its kind for any airport in the world, will be run in partnership with the British startup Oxbotica, a developer of autonomous vehicle software. The company’s CEO Graeme Smith says airports “offer an incredibly interesting domain” for its autonomous driving software.

“There is a huge diversity of vehicles, each with a very specific mission. The challenge of choreographing all of the activity around an individual plane, or in support of airport operations is immense,” Smith said.

According to Cathal Corcoran, chief information officer at Gatwick Airport, “If this trial proves successful then in the future we could have an Uber-like service operating across the airfield which staff can hail as and when they need to travel,” reports.

Gatwick currently has 300 airside vehicles, but around 90 percent of the time these remain stationary as staff attend to aircraft and passengers. Self-driving vehicles would be able to get around without waiting on staff to operate it. This means the fleet would be used more efficiently and the airport would potentially save on operational costs.

Oxbotica's technology would enable all manner of vehicles to be retrofitted with the autonomous system as the software uses the remote sensing method known as LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) for guidance. The software would enable vehicles to run autonomously without reliance on GPS tracking or any other technology outside the vehicle, The Inquirer explains.

If successful, the trial could lead to airfield transport needs being tended to by a much smaller pool of autonomous vehicles, reducing the need for large vehicle fleets, which in turn would reduce emissions and help save costs. According to Corcoran, “The new technology is a more efficient way to manage vehicles and could lead to a reduction in the number of vehicles required, their associated costs and harmful emissions.”

Oxbotica and Gatwick hope the data collected from the airport’s pilot study will demonstrate that autonomous vehicles can work safely on an airfield. The initial trial will be limited to airside roads between “popular locations” at the airport’s North and South terminals. No passengers or aircraft will be involved in the tests.

The data will be used in accordance with the UK’s Department of Transport, Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). The global insurance company XL Catlin is also interested in partnering with Oxbotica for the trials, reports.

Although the trial is just the start in the long process of necessary research, Corcoran says that if successful, it could ultimately be “the start of widespread use of autonomous vehicles on airfields across the world.”

In addition, if the technology is proven fit for purpose in an airfield environment, this could lead to a wide range of other uses of autonomous vehicles at airports, including aircraft pushback tugs, passenger load bridges, baggage vehicles and transportation buses, The Register notes.