Germany's Frankfurt Airport has started using a semi-robotic, pilot-controlled towing tractor developed by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), known as Taxibot, after the approval by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).
The hybrid-electric aircraft tractor that can be controlled by a pilot is being used by Lufthansa Technik's subsidiary Lufthansa LEOS to tow aircraft between the gate and the runway.
Using the Taxibot, aircraft can be taxied with their engines turned off, which reduces fuel costs and airport carbon emissions, as well as eliminate bottlenecks in the gate area.
According to IAI, a special nose wheel cradle in the TaxiBot registers the steering movements and transfers them to navigate the tractor's eight wheels.
This enables the pilot to steer the tractor from the cockpit using Pilot Control Mode after pushing back from the gate, to the runway. IAI said that the use of Taxibot could help Lufthansa's Frankfurt hub to save up to 2,700t of fuel a year on long-haul flights.
IAI executive vice-president Yehoshua Eldar said: "TaxiBot is the only certified and operational taxiing solution in the world.
"The TaxiBot family is expanding with the testing of the wide body (WB) model which will operate with all WB families of aircraft such as the Boeing 747 and Airbus A380. We look forward to the WB certification tests with a Lufthansa Boeing 747-400 and to continuing our long and fruitful cooperation with this leading flagship airline."
IAI has signed a memorandum of understanding with Lufthansa LEOS for wide body aircraft certification testing. Expected to be completed by the end of 2015, the test phase will be performed using a Boeing 747-400.
Lufthansa LEOS managing director Peter Unger said: "The development of the TaxiBot represents a milestone in environmentally friendly aircraft ground operations at airports.
"The use of the aircraft tractor in real-flight operations means that we are now taking the next step towards the long-term goal of environmentally friendly aircraft taxiing right up to 'green aircraft handling'."
The TaxiBot is part of Frankfurt airport's 'E-PORT AN' project.
Image: IAI's innovative TaxiBot system. Photo: courtesy of Lufthansa LEOS.