NARTP gets $2.25M to advance airfield automation

Research in southern New Jersey is expected to grow to multimillion-dollar industry

The National Aerospace Research & Technology Park in Egg Harbor Township was awarded a $2.249 million spending request to advance development and testing of autonomous devices that can perform routine, recurring, labor-intensive activities on military and civilian airfields.

The funding is part of the federal government funding bill Congress passed in December, which included more than $181 million for New Jersey projects advocated for by U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). The funding will be used to pay for the design costs of a new taxiway at Atlantic City International Airport to provide access to a proposed cargo terminal that will create new jobs and help local small businesses, as well as the development of emerging technologies associated with autonomous vehicles that would safely and securely operate on and around an airfield environment.

The initial phase of the Airfield Autonomy Initiative will focus on automated lawn mowing, foreign object debris sweeping and perimeter patrol.

Devices used for these purposes will enable more efficient and reliable ground operations and increase the safety of workers, equipment and aircraft. They also will reduce the operating costs and labor required to complete a variety of maintenance, security and operational tasks.

According to Howard Kyle, CEO and president, the NARTP will work in cooperation with the Air Force Air Mobility Command, the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, the FAA William J. Hughes Technical Center, the Atlantic County Economic Alliance and private industry to pioneer development and demonstration of the first-ever dual-use, airfield-specific autonomy command and control systems.

Developing and successfully demonstrating C2 systems that can safely operate, track, coordinate, communicate, navigate and deconflict multiple types of automated devices from a variety of technology providers is a critical step forward in increasing airport efficiencies and reducing costs.

“AAI technologies are expected to grow into a multimillion-dollar industry with worldwide demand. I am pleased that the NARTP will be helping to facilitate their development for both military and civilian airfields,” Mark Loeben, chairman, NARTP board of directors and a retired Air Force major general and current American Airlines captain, noted.

While some automated technologies are currently available, what needs to be developed are software systems that weave together a comprehensive operating system that would enable these devices to be safely incorporated into airfield operations in a manner that is both scalable and replicable.

According to Kyle, the FAA is working with Air Mobility Command on airport autonomy efforts to prepare for standards and certifications of the research developed by industry.

The AAI project will use a “crawl, walk, run” approach through a multiphase process that ensures the safety and integrity of autonomous systems, starting with devices that are furthest removed from operational aircraft (such as automated lawnmowers) and gradually advancing over time to devices that come into full contact with aircraft.

Planned demonstrations of C2 systems will focus on uncovering control and safety unknowns in a dynamic airfield environment at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst as well as ACY starting in Spring 2023.

NARTP is located on a 58-acre parcel adjoining the Federal Aviation Administration William J. Hughes Technical Center, an internationally recognized facility dedicated to research, development, and sustainment of the National Airspace System; and the Atlantic City International Airport, a designated Smart Airport Research Testbed Facility.