artiligent, aviation, mcindia@75

Air India became the first commercial airline in the world to use taxi bots in October 2019. (Representational image: Voo QQQ via Unsplash)

Ever been in a flight that was delayed or grounded because something flew into the engine while the aircraft was still taxing?

Foreign object damage (FOD) can occur when an item left on the runway gets sucked into the running engine while taxing.

One solution for this is taxi bots.

Taxing robots push the aircraft to the take-off point, so the aircraft engine can be switched on later than usual. This helps to save aviation turbine fuel (ATF) and prevent FOD during taxing – saving airlines a lot of money.

Air India became the first commercial airline in the world to use taxi bots in October 2019.

“You potentially save running an engine for those 15-20 minutes that it is being taxied. So, there is an engine cycle saving… And most critically, it also saves a lot of time on the airfield. The engine literally switches on three minutes before take-off,” says Murali Ramachandran, chief executive Officer, India Celebi Aviation, the majority partner in the taxi bot business in India.

There are plans to get the robots to do more – like carry check-in baggage, help children who’re travelling alone navigate the airport and answer common queries like where’s the washroom/ATM/retail area at the airport.

And while the hardware for the robots comes from Israel, the software is entirely homegrown as it has been ideated and developed in India by Artiligent. Plans are also afoot to teach the robots Kannada and Marathi, among other languages.

The taxi bot does not come cheap, though. “It is a very expensive piece of equipment (which) costs you close to 1.7 million euros,” says Ramachandran. Currently there are 20 taxi bots in use at the Delhi and Bengaluru airports. India is the only country where taxi bots, an alternate taxing equipment, are being used.

According to Ramachandran, a taxi bot can potentially save an airline Rs 15,000-30,000 per departure. If there are five taxi bots at Delhi airport, “we can do close to around 90-95 missions in Delhi itself,” Ramachandran adds.

In addition, taxi bots are also being used for repositioning planes from one terminal to the other, or to a remote stand or another tarmac for maintenance.

How it works

The use of taxi bots started at Bengaluru airport only in June, but they have been active at the Delhi airport for the last one and a half years. According to Ramachandran, a host of other airports like the Hyderabad, Kochi and Mumbai (airport) have also expressed interest in the technology.

Captain Pranav Sood, deputy chief pilot operations, AirAsia, says: “Normally you push back and then you wait till the engine spools up. In a taxi bot you don’t have to wait. We push back and we’re good to go.”

The pilot controls the tow tractor, adds Captain Sood. “A taxi bot does not have any control except (for) an emergency stop. The pilot controls the speed and manoeuvres it as per the Air Traffic Controller’s instructions,” he explains.

Captain Sood lists at least three advantages of a taxi bot versus a normal push back. “We have more traction on the ground – four rear wheels and eight more wheels of the taxi bot, so I have more control. Secondly, it has more lighting, and thirdly, it has a speed control,” the Captain says.

In case of low visibility, there’s a limitation of 10 knots speeds at all airports. If the pilot using the taxi bot sets the limit to nine knots, the taxi bot does not go over nine knots, another pilot adds.

Pilots say they see a lot of potential for using taxi bots during low visibility. “I’m standing at the runway waiting for the weather to improve with two engines running. If I am using the taxi bot, then my engine is shut down saving fuel because so many times it happens that some aircraft have to come back to refuel if there is a long wait (during low runway visibility).

Service angle

Travellers can already seek the robots’ assistance to find the nearest ATM, toilets and the retail area. Down the line, there are plans to have robots help premium-class passengers with their baggage by carrying it to the check-in counter. This is not a futuristic scenario but work-in-progress at the Bengaluru airport where 10 robots are part of a trial. This is again the first of its kind use of the robots in India.

Rupesh Sawant, CEO, Artiligent, told Moneycontrol that the robot can answer passengers’ initial queries and in case a passenger needs additional support, the airport staff can log into the robot. Artiligent has given robots to Bengaluru airport and they are also deployed at Coimbatore airport.

Explaining what robots do at airports, Sawant says, “The robot moves along the airport. Once you go near it, it will stop and greet you. You can ask it any question. It could be related to a service you want. Like, you need to take your child to the restroom but don’t know where it is. Or need to withdraw cash from the ATM. The robot’s Artificial Intelligence can answer all these questions. It can also escort you to that place. The robot has mapped more than 1 million square feet of the airport (in Bengaluru).”

Besides, if a child is travelling alone, the parents or local guardian can log into the robot and the robot will continue to chat with the child while taking her through the airport. “It can also take a wheelchair passenger through the entire airport journey,” Sawant says, adding that they are also planning to use robots to take the luggage of premium class passengers to the check in counters.

“The child service job for the robot is being planned by the end of the year. However, the baggage pick-up and drop is still being tested. It should take at least six months to a year for us to provide those services to the airport, especially Bengaluru airport,” Sawant says.

At the moment the robot communicates only in English, but work is on for it to make it communicate in Kannada, Hindi, Marathi and Arabic.

Artiligent, which currently has 10 robots deployed on a trial basis at Bengaluru airport hopes to expand to more airports in India and abroad by the end of the year.

“We will be present in at least 10 more airports in India and five other airports we are in talks with in the Middle East and Asia Pacific put together,” Sawant says.

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