Bye, bye snow: Runway cleared at the push of a button

I live in the countryside, where our snow-removal service is a farmer and his tractor from the next village. It sounds about as reliable as it is.

If you had this type of snow removal at an airport, it would bring traffic to a complete standstill — not only on the ground, as it does for us, but also in the air.

If you want to keep airport runways clear in a snowstorm, you need to have a lot of workers on standby who are ready to go into action at any time of the morning, day, or night. In other words, most of their working time consists of waiting to find out if the weather forecast is correct, if there’s going to be snow, etc. Forecasts are often wrong – after all, it’s not possible to precisely predict the weather.

That’s why I’m now standing with a diverse group of journalists at a former military airfield near Bad Sobernheim in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. Looking out at the horizon, we can see the end of the runway and today’s featured guests — four bright orange Mercedes-Benz Arocs trucks, each equipped with a snowplow in the front and a snow-sweeper and blower machine as a semitrailer. These trucks are part of the “Automated Airfield Ground Maintenance” (AAGM) project, which is being conducted jointly by Daimler’s Lab1886 innovation factory, Daimler Trucks, and Fraport AG.

Four Mercedes-Benz Arocs 2045 AS 4×4 trucks perform the snow-clearing operations

We’re here to see how the trucks clear snow from the airfield. There’s actually no snow here — but that’s not so important at the moment because the idea is to demonstrate the feasibility of automated driving in a remote-controlled vehicle group. Runways need to be completely closed off when snow is cleared at an airport, and air traffic is therefore suspended during such an operation. At the same time, in this scenario there are no unexpected obstacles that need to be removed — nothing, that is, except snow and ice. So the conditions are perfect for automated driving.

How the truck knows where to go

The lights on the Arocs on the far right switch on and the truck begins to move. The other trucks then start up one after the other and drive round a curve onto the runway, so that they are lined up parallel to the runway, one behind the other and offset at an equal distance from one another. Are they all there? Yes — which means they can get started.

Looking at steering wheels that turn by themselves is a little spooky, but it’s also really fascinating to see what modern technology is capable of. I asked Christian Ballarin from Daimler Trucks Advanced Engineering to explain how all this works.

He began by pointing out that the key component here is the Remote Truck Interface, or RTI. Each truck’s cab is equipped with the RTI, which serves as the interface for the remote operation of the trucks and the exchange of data. Starting the engine, steering, shifting, braking — the RTI can do all of this and more.

A little spooky: The Remote Truck Interface ensures that each of the four Arocs trucks remains on its track — even though three of the four vehicles have no driver

The automated snow-clearing operation basically works as follows: The convoy leader chooses a guide vehicle from which he or she then monitors all of the trucks in the convoy. In other words, you only need one driver to operate all the trucks simultaneously. Still, how do the Arocs know where to go? The answer is simple: The route is designed and mapped in advance, which means that each truck can follow its individually programmed path.

The amazing thing here is that the vehicles are precisely tracked via differential GPS and follow their predefined paths to the letter, with a maximum deviation of only three centimeters. The “minder” in the first truck can also intervene manually at any time. For example, if he or she slightly shifts the lead vehicle’s track, the other trucks will follow suit. With such automated convoys, vehicles are always available even if drivers are not — no matter what the weather conditions or what time of day or night.

Morning or night, in snow or ice — the vehicles are always ready to go into action

Hop on!

We watch the first snow-clearing run from a bus, but after that we’re all given a chance to ride along in an Arocs. This way we can see exactly what goes on in the vehicle.

In the thick of it instead of just along for the ride: I get to experience the automated trip from inside the driver’s cab

The Arocs, each 23 meters long with its semitrailer, fan out back to back and laterally offset. The snowplow, which lowers automatically, can clear an area eight meters wide. There are “only” four vehicles in this test phase, but the network can be expanded to include up to 14 trucks. It’s hard for me to imagine that — 14 automated trucks that move snow and maintain a predefined distance from one another? Well, the fact is that it’s all absolutely technically possible and feasible. The runways at Frankfurt Airport are up to 70 meters wide. That’s a lot of space to clear in one run, but it can be done.

The project team is now focusing on refining the system and gaining further experience with it — and I’m very much looking forward to the first automated snow-clearing operation at an airport.

Marie Dietsch is a working student at Internal Communications Commercial Vehicles at Daimler. She can already imagine being at an airport sometime in the near future and knowing that the sudden snowfall on the runway will soon be removed, allowing her to take off without delay to warmer, snow-free climates.