Snow-bot to touch down at airport

Winnipeg Free Press, October 9, 2018

A snow-loving robot will soon join the ranks of the Winnipeg Airport Authority’s runway maintenance team. 

On Oct. 3, the WAA announced plans to add an autonomous snow plow to its fleet through a partnership with Headingley’s Northstar Robotics, and Airport Technologies Inc. out of Portage la Prairie. 

“We’re really pleased to be partnering with two Manitoba companies to do something that has never been done,” said Barry Rempel, WAA president and chief executive officer.

This is the first time autonomous technology is being applied to snow clearing at an airport in North America. The project — which will see Northstar’s technology added to a plow manufactured by ATI — is expected to be ready for testing in early 2019.

“It’s basically to enhance during weather events where you can never have enough snow plow operators,” said Vince Dancho, vice-president of operations with WAA. “And to look to the technology that could come out of this when there is zero visibility and how our staff can still clear snow safely.”

The machine will look identical to the airport’s nine other plows, but will have a bulb on the front to house its sensors. Operators will be able to monitor and control the plow from a command centre using a tablet. It will be programmed to clear snow along a predetermined route and to stop and alert its operator if anything gets in its way. 

Dancho says the plan is to safety-test the plow on secondary runways before letting it onto main airport thoroughfares.

Northstar has already created self-driving lawn mowers and small autonomous tractors, but the snow plow project comes with its own set of hurdles. 

“The machine is bigger and… snow is a real challenge,” Northstar president and founder Shawn Schaerer said. “When you’re on an agricultural field there’s not a lot that gets in the way, but with snow it changes the perception system — you can’t see through snow so we have to use new technologies.”

Once developed, Schaerer said the technology could also be used on city streets during the winter.

This is the first time ATI, which build snow clearing machines specifically for airports, has been involved in an autonomous vehicle project.

“It’s something that’s been talked about in our industry a lot and not necessarily acted on, so this is very leading edge and we’re thrilled to be part of it,” ATI president Brendon Smith said. “We have an inside track on getting information back from them and that will allow us to learn at a level that we wouldn’t be able to on our own.

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