Hong Kong cargo handler trialling autonomous tractors

by Inside Logistics Online Staff

Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminals Limited (Hactl) – Hong Kong’s largest independent cargo handler – is introducing Autonomous Electric Tractors (AETs) to its ramp operations in 2024.

Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminals Limited (Hactl) – Hong Kong’s largest independent cargo handler – is introducing Autonomous Electric Tractors (AETs) to its ramp operations in 2024.

Hactl has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Westwell Holdings (Hong Kong) Ltd. to collaborate on the introduction of the vehicles. Hactl aims to develop autonomous vehicles which – in addition to the relatively simple task of towing cargo dollies – automatically couple and uncouple the dollies, and adjust to their differing specifications.

One of Hactl’s main motivations in moving to autonomous vehicles is the ongoing challenge of recruiting. “Recruitment for airport-related work, and particularly airside work, is becoming ever more challenging,” said Wilson Kwong, chief executive of Hactl.

“This means we must utilize our available workforce as efficiently as possible, and deploy them on those duties which make best use of their experience, skills and abilities. After extensive investigation and research, we believe that the work of operating towing tractors over set routes should now be feasible using the latest autonomous vehicle technology, and that this can be achieved without compromising safety. Although driverless vehicles are becoming established technology, Hactl is enhancing the concept with the addition of automated functions specific to its needs.”

Once testing and final on-site tuning and mapping to Hactl’s specific requirements are completed, the AETs will be progressively integrated into Hactl’s current driver-controlled tractor fleet, and will initially tow loaded import ULDs on a one-kilometre route between an outdoor ULD staging area, and the main terminal ULD system intake. AETs will be used on longer and more complex routes in due course.

Safety is the major consideration in operating the new vehicles. Each AET is equipped with a highly-accurate GNSS system and uses multiple HD cameras and LiDAR sensors to detect all objects and avoid collisions. The AETs have similar capabilities to the current diesel-powered tractor fleet, but operational speeds will be restricted to  eight kph as an additional safety measure.

The AETs have a range of up to 75 km per charge; being electrically powered, they will also make a significant contribution to Hactl’s carbon reduction program.

The deployment of AETs is Hactl’s first step in the potential wider use of autonomous vehicles throughout its operations, Kwong added. “This is just the beginning. We are exploring additional applications for this technology, with the aim of further improving productivity and freeing up staff for more demanding duties, while continuing to reduce our environmental impact.”