At the Marcus Evans conference in Barcelona today, WheelTug CEO Isaiah Cox announced a launch customer for the WheelTug. (WheelTug is an AirInsight client)

There are two interesting aspects to the Wheeltug story; one is airline operations and the other is the environment aspect.

ElAl has decided to be the launch customer of the WheelTug system, signing an LoI to equip its fleet of 737NGs.

Airline Operations

  • WheelTug’s novel electric motor tackles a critical bottleneck in airport operations. Pushback and requires a ground vehicle to physically push a parked aircraft away from the gate, followed by the crew’s use of main engines to drive the airplane to the runway. After landing, the main engines are used to drive the airplane to an arrival gate.
  • WheelTug’s system is centered on two powerful electric motors, integrated inside the wheels of an aircraft’s nose landing gear. Controlled by the pilot, the motors drive the aircraft forward and back, from the gate to the runway for takeoff, and back to the gate after landing. The motors draw electricity from the aircraft’s auxiliary power unit (APU), cutting fuel burn by up to 85%.
  • The WheelTug concept grew out of fundamental research into electric motor efficiency that began in the mid-1990s at Princeton University. “It became clear that our group had developed a methodology that redefined what AC electric motors could deliver,” said CEO Isaiah Cox. “The research team realized that the improved power and reliability of its patented motor technology could bring enormous benefits to aviation.”
  • Those benefits are dramatic, with WheelTug assessing that a typical Boeing 737NG can directly save over €300,000 ($500,000) annually with the system installed. The company estimates that additional benefits could bring an even larger windfall to cash-strapped airlines.
  • WheelTug’s began testing with a successful 2005 proof-of-concept demonstration on a Boeing 767 at an airport in Arizona. That led to several years of funding and engineering work to prepare the system for commercialization. Last November, the company conducted a successful data-gathering test at Prague Airport using specialized test motors mounted on a Boeing 737NG belonging to Czech airline Travel Service
  • WheelTug’s engineering team is now building its motors into the standard nose wheel for the Boeing 737NG, in preparation for certification tests with regulatory authorities.
  • WheelTug expects FAA and EASA certification of the system in 1Q13. The company’s first target markets are commercial narrow-bodies operators, but its vision of the future is even larger, encompassing both regional jets and military aircraft.

Environmental Impact

  • A Boeing 737NG burns an average of 7 kg/minute of fuel during single-engine taxi, “those are the numbers I have to keep in mind,” says WheelTug’s Chief Pilot, Joseph Goldman. “Even if -out is officially expected to take 15 minutes, I may plan for 45 minutes to cover an unplanned slowdown.” That extra 30 minutes of fuel adds over 200 kg of fuel that will usually go unburned. “I hope for a timely departure, and to simply carry that extra fuel to my destination. And usually, that’s what happens.” With WheelTug, however, a pilot’s calculations change. “We can plan around the APU’s fuel burn, instead of the engines’,” says Goldman. “Instead of over 200 kg of taxi contingency fuel, I can load 60 kg, and have the same operational flexibility while taking off more than 140 kilos of dead weight.” This translates into a 70% lower fuel load with consequent on airport improved emissions and lower noise levels. With the European Emissions Trading Scheme coming into force, aircraft operators need a way to keep their engines powered-off when unneeded, and to lower emissions when they’re powered-on. “At current rates, WheelTug will save airlines at least €10 per flight in CO2 fees under .”
  • Air quality improvements “are very substantial,” according to Aaron Sichel of Wheeltug’s Airports Liaison team, with the company’s analysis projecting major reductions in all emissions. “It starts with taking ground tug emissions out of the mix entirely,” says Sichel. “And then we start with the airplanes themselves. WheelTug will reduce NOx emissions by over 50% compared to single-engine taxi, and over 66% compared to dual-engine taxi.” The same kinds of numbers attend carbon monoxide, the major precursor of ground-level ozone, with an estimated reduction of 65-78%. Unburned hydrocarbons, readily produced by engines at power, will be “reduced by at least 60%.” “Whether it’s CO2, noxious pollutants, noise or jet blast,” says Sichel, “we’re looking at a full-spectrum clearing of the air around airports.”

In preparing for the news release, WheelTug demonstrated its technology and numbers to some industry experts who provided this feedback:

  • Taxiing without engines “has always been a good idea,” says Tom Ronell, former Vice President of Sales at Airbus Americas. Now CEO of Ronell Aviation Services, he notes that WheelTug is the first technology capable of turning the idea into a reality. “It’s taken this long for somebody to create an unobtrusive and cost-effective method of accomplishing engine-less taxi.” With such technology finally coming to market, Ronell predicts strong airline interest in WheelTug adoption.  Ronell says those are savings that operators are hungry for. “With the ROI profile projected for this investment, and the reduced fuel burn and carbon emissions, it should be a double-win for the airlines and a break for the environment.”
  • After designing landing gear for the new Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 Dreamliner, Endeavor Analysis CEO Scott Perkins says his company saw the WheelTug program as an exciting next step. EA joined the WheelTug team in 2010. “It’s an idea whose time has come,” says Perkins, a chief engineer with decades of aerospace design experience. “With WheelTug, we’re using the landing gear itself to enable new levels of aircraft efficiency and safety. That’s new, and it’s quite satisfying to bring that kind of technology to the market.”
  • Other members of the WheelTug team include motor builder Dynetic Systems, gearing designer Gibbs Gears, and aerospace software experts Resource Engineering Projects (REP).
  • Vice President of Collateral Verifications, an aviation consultancy, Gueric Dechavanne agrees that carriers are ready for the technology. “WheelTug looks to be a great new innovation for today’s challenging airline environment,” says Dechavanne. “The airlines need to focus on becoming more efficient through innovative solutions,” he says, citing growing economic and operational pressures. “WheelTug seems to address that need very well by not only reducing fuel burn, which will always be critical for an airline, but also providing lowered maintenance costs and emissions during .” The result will be “significant savings to any airline utilizing the product.”
  • Aviation analyst Robert Mann, head of R.W. Mann & Co., agrees that WheelTug should deliver significant revenue benefits to operators. “I expect rapid returns and high ROI” for airlines that adopt WheelTug’s technology, says Mann. “They’ll see improved operational economics and performance, improved reliability and reduced variability.” Mann added that equipping aircraft with WheelTug will “remove a frequent source of delays,” by taking ground tugs out of the pushback equation. Mann foresees “improved departure and arrival punctuality, and reduced block time variance” for operators adopting the technology. Mann sees benefits accruing to everyone with a stake in airline operations. There will be “rapid returns, high ROI, improved operational economics and performance,” for airlines, he says, with “improved reliability and reduced variability” for everyone. “The net result is that WheelTug will be a big win for both airlines and their customers.”
  • Managing partner at aerospace consultancy G2 Solutions, Michel Merluzeau says “The [WheelTug] system can make a profound impact on aircraft operations worldwide.” He agrees that the operational advantages generated by WheelTug will benefit a wide range of stakeholders. For the majority of carriers, says Merluzeau, “there are near-term tangible benefits that will satisfy airline requirements for more efficient airport ground operations, while also helping airlines reduce their support equipment footprint requirements, thus reducing the environmental impact of aircraft ground operations.” agrees. “With proper procedures in place,” Merluzeau says, “such a system will clearly help airlines and airports reduce fuel and maintenance costs, while also reducing aircraft dependency on support vehicles.” “This system,” Merluzeau says, “is definitely part of a message supporting the use of technology to assist in creating savings for airlines and airports.” WheelTug “is demonstrating that intelligent use of technological solutions will produce far better results than taxation in making air travel more environmentally friendly.”
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