Self-driving snowplows are clearing runways at airport

Following Sunday’s terrible, fatal incident in Tempe, Arizona on Sunday, March 18, the autonomous-vehicle industry is under more scrutiny than ever just now.

While at least two companies — Uber and Toyota — have suspended operations on public roads, all of the firms that are interested in the technology will continue with private testing as they seek to advance the safety and efficiency of their respective autonomous technologies.

Away from cars, several companies are also working on other kinds of vehicles that can operate without any human input.

Take Yeti Snow Technology. The company has been developing an autonomous snowplow and recently tested it for the first time at an airport in Norway.

We all know that heavy snowfall can cause chaos at airports, closing them for hours, and even days if conditions get really bad. Predicting snow clearances is a tricky affair and keeping the relevant personnel nearby around the clock throughout winter can prove costly for airport operators.

Yeti hopes its autonomous snowplow is the answer. The machine is 20 meters long and 5.5 meters wide and needs only an hour to clear an area of about 350,000 square meters. It was tested recently at Fagernes Airport in Leirin, about 90 miles northwest of the Norwegian capital of Oslo.

Similar to the Daimler snowplow that we saw tested on a snowless airfield last year, Yeti’s autonomous machines clear the snow in formation, working together for optimum efficiency.

As the technology is being used off-road and in a strictly controlled environment, the computer-driven vehicle doesn’t need to rely as much on cameras and sensors for safe movement. The routes that each one takes can be accurately programmed as they will be predictable, always involving the same path to and from its storage facility. A platoon of the slow-moving machines can also be monitored directly by a human supervisor as an extra safety measure, if necessary.

Hans Peter Havdal of Semcon, a Swedish technology firm backing the project, is certainly excited about the system’s potential. “An airport is like a miniature society,” he says on the company’s website. “If we can get self-driving vehicles to operate there, we can apply the technology to any field whatsoever.”

Should Yeti’s tests be deemed a success, the driverless snowplows could be deployed at nearly 50 airports across Norway, with the possibility of further expansion beyond that.