A world premiere has just been announced over at the GSE Expo Europe in Paris, France: one of the best-known names in global air and travel services, dnata, will soon be trialing self-driving technology in cargo tractors over in the US. The agnostic, retrofittable autonomous driving system ‘AeroVect Driver’ stems from AeroVect, an enterprising Silicon Valley start-up launched at the debut of the pandemic, and now quite possibly the perfect answer to the aviation world’s current lack of ground services staff. CargoForwarder Global recently had the chance to talk to its Co-Founder, Eugenio Donati.
“We are beyond excited to partner with dnata, the leading global ground handler, and help them accelerate the transformation of their logistics operations at the world’s busiest airports. With a deep passion for innovation and unwavering commitment to service excellence, dnata is the logical partner for AeroVect as we bring GSE automation to market at scale globally,” Eugenio Donati, Co-Founder of AeroVect’s commented this morning.
The significance of this partnership
It is the first time that a global ground handling service provider and an autonomous driving company are working together to pilot and deploy autonomous ground support equipment. The trials will begin at a large US station in Spring, initially with the deployment of a single unit for a period of 2-3 months. It will transport cargo autonomously from a cargo warehouse to one of the airport’s terminals, on a simple route of around 15 minutes each way. If successful, up to 100 of dnata’s cargo tractors will be retrofitted with AeroVect Driver technology, and will begin operating in other stations in the US, branching out to Europe, as well as dnata’s home hubs - Dubai International Airport (DXB) and Dubai World Central (DWC).
Speaking on behalf of dnata, Bartu Korgul, Head of GSE, explained: “We constantly invest in technology and leading-edge equipment to further enhance efficiency and deliver world-class services for our customers across our global network. We look forward to piloting and deploying Aerovect’s innovative solution in our operations at some of the world’s busiest airports.” It was dnata who first approached AeroVect
It all started in a garage
We are all pretty familiar with the destiny of certain companies that began in a garage. By the sounds of things, AeroVect is onto a promising trajectory, too. Founding a company in your last year of college, at a time when the world is on the brink of breakdown, when you’re having to carve out a complete network for yourself as an unknown entity in a fragmented and complex industry as aviation and when Covid-regulations mean that potential sales contacts can only be carried out remotely – all those factors could have shut things down very early on. And yet – the power and conviction of a mission placed Co-Founders Eugenio Donati and Raymond Wang onto the Forbes 30 under 30 - Manufacturing and Industry (2022) list, and saw the company raise USD 2.1 million in its first year.
The mission? “To dramatically improve the efficiency, safety, and sustainability of the over USD 100 billion/year global ground handling industry through state-of-the art automation technology built specifically for the airport logistics domain”.
Our first tractor
The idea came about when Economics graduate, Eugenio, spent some time at the MIT research center for aviation and saw the opportunity to build an automation product for aviation. “Airports, for some reason, are not automated like ports and warehouses. They are spaces that are closed to outsiders, with a lot of friction, regulations, and unique requirements. Aviation solutions need to be safe and reliable,” Eugenio tells me. “So, we decided that instead of adapting a solution from another domain, we would build something specific for aviation.” By we, he is referring to his Co-Founder, Raymond Wang, a Computer Science graduate and private pilot. The two teamed up, rented a house in San Francisco Bay Area, bought a used airport tractor, had it shipped to their garage, and then began testing solutions on the road outside. They chose to start with cargo trucks, since these do not touch the aircraft. Also, trucks travel very similar routes each day, and are thus easy to scale. Once customer trust is built up through a simple, safe Proof of Concept, the autonomous driving system can also be applied to other ground support equipment.
Digital twins and training
Things happen pretty fast over at AeroVect, is the impression I get. The first solution was ready in a few months, and then it was a matter of going around all the industry conference and airports to set the groundwork for autonomous transport by mapping the airports (it only takes a couple of hours to map an airport, apparently) and talking to potential customers. AeroVect’s first launch customer was GAT Airline Ground Support, a ground, passenger and cargo handler operating at 72 locations across the US and Canada, which began testing in Summer. GAT has committed to retrofitting a fleet of up to 50 units over the next few years. Installing the hardware kit on the vehicles can all be done onsite in a few hours, he tells me. “The key to building autonomy is a lot of training data. AeroVect Driver is kitted with an airport map and needs to be able to see airplanes and trucks,” he describes the basics.
Sustainability shift and stars aligning
A number of factors have come together now, that are seeing requests flooding in to AeroVect. For one, the demand for air travel and cargo bounced back much faster than expected, and operations are unable to keep up. “There is a mismatch, and companies are looking to autonomy to ensure that the chaos many airports suffered over the Summer does not happen again. Everyone has realized that human-run ground handling is not the way forward. Automation is the way forward, and now is also the perfect time for it since automation technology is mature enough compared to 5 years ago.” Labor shortages can be compensated, and people can be reassigned to those workflows that require a human focus. Thus, the benefits include lower resource costs, higher value-add in existing jobs, greater reliability, productivity and speed, improved safety, plus a clear sustainability boost. “The shift towards automation is happening at same time as a shift to electrification. There is a focus on electric cargo ground support equipment as airlines are interested in moving away from fossil fuel,” he points out.
“There has been incredible pull from airlines and handlers in the past 6 months,” Eugenio tells me. “Once it comes to the biggest pain points, that’s when things start moving and companies come to us saying ‘we want to have this, can we start talking? We are the only company building exclusively for the ground handling industry.’” An enviable position for any company to be in. AeroVect will soon be signing on a large global airline, he discloses. And it is currently offering a number of jobs – some remote, but mostly engineering in San Francisco. “We’re open to sponsoring visas,” he replies when I ask about diversity in employment.
What is AeroVect’s long-term vision, I ask “We aim to be a one-stop shop company with a suite of automation products,” he says. How long will it be before all GSE at airports drive themselves?
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