Business

Driverless terminal bus goes on test run at Tokyo's Haneda airport

by Satoshi Sugiyama

Staff Writer

A minibus decorated with All Nippon Airways Co.’s signature blue and white logo motors across the tarmac at Tokyo’s Haneda airport. From the outside, it looks like an ordinary bus, with a person sitting in the driver’s seat — except no one is really operating the vehicle.

Reporters got a glimpse Tuesday of an autonomous airport bus experiment in progress. It is part of Japan’s first series of experiments on automatic vehicle-control systems designed to carry passengers within an airport’s restricted zone.

The project at Haneda is being developed by six companies, including ANA, NEC Corp. and Aichi Steel Corp.

The move to go autonomous comes at a time when Japan is grappling with a shrinking labor force amid rising tourist numbers from abroad.

As more flights are expected to arrive at and depart from Haneda in the coming years, the goal is to effectively and efficiently carry out operations for the ground crew, said Tadakatsu Yamaguchi, an ANA official.

Those tasks include moving passengers between aircraft and terminals as well as unloading and loading their luggage.

“As widely reported in the media, our industry regards the lack of drivers as an important issue,” Yamaguchi said. “Through automation, we hope to increase a vehicle’s operation time, enhance vehicle coordination and reduce the labor of bus drivers.”

The goal is to have automated transportation in at least one Japanese airport by 2020, the year Tokyo will host the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games, according to transport ministry official Haruka Hasegawa.

At this stage in the experiment, a driver is always onboard to ensure safety. Officials say they eventually hope the minibus will be driverless.

The experiment started Jan. 15 and is scheduled to wrap up this Friday. The bus is traveling 600 meters from the airport’s Terminal 2 to its satellite terminal. The Hino Motors Poncho minibus, capable of carrying 28 people, travels on the designated route using GPS.

For areas where GPS is unavailable in the restricted zone, the bus relies on magnetic technology, said Masataka Sakamoto, a representative from one of the six firms, SB Drive Corp., a subsidiary of SoftBank Group Corp.

The minibus uses a receiver installed in its undercarriage to follow “magnetic markers” embedded in the ground. About 200 magnetic markers have been implanted where the test minibus is running.

To avoid collisions with aircraft, a remote human operator conducts safety checks through images from cameras installed inside and outside the bus. In the future, it is expected that a single monitor will handle several vehicles at the same time.

Similar autonomous tests have been carried out at Narita International Airport and Sendai International Airport. They will also be carried out at Chubu Centrair International Airport near Nagoya in the future.

“The airport is a unique environment where neither bicycles nor people come onto the field and the maximum speed is 30 kph by regulation,” Yamaguchi said. This makes it “an optimal environment” to test how an autonomous vehicle will coexist with cars with drivers on the road, he said.

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