Lufthansa will test the Taxibot pilot-controlled tow-tractor in daily operations at Frankfurt over a six-month period next year.
The airline's ground handling arm, Lufthansa Engineering and Operational Services (LEOS), has arranged with Israel Aerospace Industries, which is leading the project, to station three Taxibots at the German hub in May 2013. They will be used to move the carrier's Boeing 737s on scheduled services from the ramp to the runway without using their main engines.
The objective is to collect operational data from day-to-day operations, optimise ground processes and refine the tug system. However, if the test results are positive, Lufthansa will deploy the system as a launch customer, says Ran Braier, IAI's director for the Taxibot programme. He adds that IAI is considering another, similar beta test in the USA.
Certification work is due to begin next year, with entry-into-service due to follow in 2014.
Braier is confident that the hybrid-powered tractor will find its market even though it requires a driver like a conventional tug. While the pilots control the TaxiBot on the way to the runway, a driver is still needed to connect the vehicle to the aircraft and to drive it back from the runway to the airport terminal. But Braier says that the cost for the driver will be "negligible" compared to the savings, for example, due to lower fuel consumption on the ground.
The Taxibot lifts up the nose landing gear like a conventional tow-tractor. However, the aircraft's wheels stand on a rotating platform, which allows free nose-gear steering movement and translates the pilot's control inputs - via the nose wheel tiller in the cockpit - into directional inputs for the tug. The nose wheel platform also allows some lateral movement to absorb loads during braking with the aircraft's main-wheel brakes and avoid damage to the nose gear.
The Taxibot is equipped with a diesel main engine, which produces energy for electric motors in each of the main wheels.