Autonomous Electric Tow Tugs Could Cut Handling Costs

 - November 13, 2020, 5:52 AM
Moonware's new tow tugs will be electrically powered and operate autonomously. (Image: Moonware)

Californian start-up Moonware is stepping up its plans to develop a family of electrically powered tow tugs that it says could transform the ground handling process for aircraft up to the size of widebody airliners. The tugs, which could be ready to enter service in 2023, will operate autonomously using software and control systems developed by the San Francisco-based company.

Moonware plans to make vehicles that in the business aviation and urban air mobility sectors will be able to tow aircraft up to a weight of around 10,000 pounds, with larger tugs planned for airliners with pulling power of up to around 600,000 pounds. The company has just concluded an initial collaboration with Uber Elevate to study the possible use of the tugs on the vertiports where its planned eVTOL aircraft rideshare services will operate.

The Moonware vehicles are being designed to move autonomously between pre-determined waypoints, such as gates, taxiways, and runways that would be designated by air traffic controls at each site. Any required path updates will be set via the company’s cloud-based traffic management network that will draw on real-time data showing each vehicle’s position and status. The system will use the data to update each vehicle’s route to tow a particular aircraft, avoid a potential hazard, or recharge the batteries, as necessary.

The vehicles also will use a patented mechanism that leverages the weight of each aircraft’s front nose gear to generate the necessary torque for towing operations. Moonware says this also allows the vehicle to accommodate different types of landing gear and reduces structural fatigue compared with the clamps and pin-latch mechanisms used by many current tow tugs.

According to co-founder and CEO Javier Vidal, the Moonware system will use multiple Lidar (light detecting and ranging) sensors to avoid collisions with other aircraft, ground support vehicles, or buildings. Moonware claims that the self-driving tow tugs have the potential to cut ground handling operating costs for some aircraft operators. It also says that operations will be safer and quieter as well as result in reduced carbon emissions.

The company maintains that airport or vertiport environments are well-suited to the automation of functions that require strict protocols such as ground handling. The use of robotics technology is also supported by the availability of clearly designated pathways and taxiways that simplify vehicle perception and localization.

Moonware’s seven-strong team includes specialists in automation, robotics, and automotive technology from companies including Uber, Waymo, Google, Amazon, Otto Trucks, Mercedes-Benz, and Corvette-GM.

This story is from, a new resource developed by AIN to provide objective, independent coverage and analysis of new aviation technology, including electric aircraft developments and advanced air mobility.