Autonomous Snowplow Gang Shows Promise at Finnish Airport, but Safety Still a Speedbump

Multiple companies are working on autonomous snowplow for clearing airport runways. Credit: Semcon

April 10, 2018      

As winter finally winds down in the Northern Hemisphere, autonomous snowplow development continues. The revolution in self-driving vehicles is now reaching airports, and what’s more, these systems can work together.

Yeti gangs up in Scandinavia

The Yeti is an autonomous snowplow developed by Yeti Snow Technology, a joint venture between Swedish tech companies Semcon and Øveraassen. Semcon has contributed its expertise in complex real-time systems and autonomous systems, and Øveraasen brings its extensive experience in road and railroad snow removal.

At Fagerness Airport in Norway, trials showed that two autonomous snowplows working together can clean snowed-under runways and taxiways quickly and thoroughly.

They used the so-called gang method. Using a diagonal pattern adapted to runway and taxiway dimensions, plow No. 1 pushed snow in front of plow No. 2, which pushed it aside. If necessary, more plows could be added to the gang. This method significantly increases efficiency and effectiveness.

Delays and cancellations are costly

Like many parts of the U.S. and Canada, Northern Europe suffers from costly flight delays and cancellations due to snowfall.

Places like Sweden, Norway, Scotland, and parts of Germany routinely get 24 to 48 inches of snow. In addition, Russia and the Baltic states are often snowed in for days or even weeks at a time.

Frankfurt Airport, Germany’s busiest, had to cancel 170 flights just before Christmas 2017, causing distress among passengers.

The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that flight cancellations cost airlines in the U.S. $22 billion each year. Bad weather causes a significant proportion of these cancellations. Add to this the costs to other businesses and individuals who rarely get compensated in full, and it’s clear this is a serious issue.

Autonomous snowplow advantages

Airports invest heavily in de-icing equipment and other ways to reduce weather effects on flight schedules. In winter, low temperatures can render snowplows unusable or require them to be warmed up before they can be used.

The Yeti autonomous snowplow does not need to be kept in a heated place during inactivity, nor does it need constant running to keep the engine from freezing up. On top of that, far fewer staff members are needed to operate the Yetis.

“We have designed a control system that sets up digital patterns for autonomous snow clearance at airports,” said John Emil Halden, Semcon project manager. “The system can then download these patterns and monitor a number of vehicles that navigate using RTK GPS, an accurate form of position measurement, and communicate using 4G modems.”

In January, the Institute of Navigation (ION) held its eighth annual autonomous snowplow competition in St. Paul, Minn. Also on a smaller scale is Left Hand Robotics‘ SnowBot Pro.

Safety limitations remain

Semcon promises lower operating costs and optimized plowing patterns, but what about safety? Recent incidents involving self-driving cars have demonstrated that precautions are needed. Legislators are also calling for more regulation.

The Yetis follow pre-programmed routes, requiring no additional cameras or sensors. However, there is a risk of collisions with runway staff, airport cars, and even airplanes if they’re not programmed into the system. Such risks have unacceptable consequences in terms of human suffering, financial losses, and severe interruptions to European and intercontinental flights.

During the initial phase, autonomous snowplows are probably best kept away from busy taxiways and runways. They need to maintain safe time and distance margins and have human overseers.

More artificial intelligence and sensors capable of detecting obstacles and dynamic environments through snow are also necessary.

The Yeti gets ready for global markets

During tests at Fagerness Airport, two Yeti robots worked as a gang. In varying weather conditions, they cleaned an area of 357,500 square meters (88.3 acres or about 670 football fields) in one hour. The Yetis are 20 meters (67 feet) long and 5.5 meters (18.3 feet) wide.

Norway has 50 airports and airfields, which all need snowplowing capacity. In Europe, there are 347 commercial airports and about 2.500 airfields, of which probably 40% are in snow-prone areas.

Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz unit also demonstrated runway-clearing autonomous snowplows in Frankfurt last year.

There are thousands of cold-weather airports and airfields in North America, South America, and Asia. If autonomous snowplows can be safe enough to also clear highways, the market for such mobile robots could be worth at least hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions.