"Cool, but how does it get back from the end of the runway?" is the most common response to Israel Aerospace Industries TaxiBot - a semi-robotic, pilot-controlled vehicle that tows aircraft from the airport gate to the runway to save fuel and emissions.
TaxiBot has entered advanced tests at Chateauroux Airport, France (pictured above), and IAI says "serious talks" with launch customers have taken place over the past few weeks and "first orders are expected within the next months."
IAI has been working since 2008 with Airbus, Lufthansa LEOS and TLD Group, conducting demonstrations in 2011 towing an A340-600 in Toulouse and a 747-400 in Frankfurt. Production of the narrowbody TaxiBot is beginning at TLD France, with a widebody version to follow a year later.
Beta tests in Frankfurt by Lufthansa's ground handling company. are planned to test a narrowbody TaxiBot with a 737 for certification. This will be followed by the day-to-day operation of three production systems with Lufthansa's 737 fleet in Frankfurt, starting mid-2013.
IAI estimates worldwide taxiing costs in 2020 will exceed $8.5 billion a year, and claims TaxiBot can reduce these to less than $3 billion a year. Where a 747 on a 17min taxi before take-off will burn 1 ton (1,250 liters) of fuel, IAI says the TaxiBot consumes only 25-30 liters and emits less than 60kg of CO2 compared with 3.2 tons from the aircraft engines.
How does it work? While the TaxiBot accelerates to the taxiing speed set for the taxiway , the pilot steers the vehicle using his tiller (the nosewheels sit on a turret that rotates, sending steering commands) and brakes using the main landing-gear brakes. A surveillance system allows the tower to have full control of vehicle operation.
And how does the TaxiBot get back from the end of the runway? By using the safety driver who must sit in the cab of the vehicle at all times, hands-off while the pilot is in command, then taking over to drive back to the gate.