Welcome to Heathrow, your robocab awaits PDF Print E-mail
Technology - Transport

May 27, 2007
Welcome to Heathrow, your robocab awaits
by Robert Booth

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Heathrow Airport's ULTra PRT undergoing performance testing

Heathrow is to switch to autopilot with the world’s first fleet of driverless taxis to whisk passengers around the airport.

The electrically powered “pod cabs” will allow users to key in their destination and be carried there automatically along special roadways at speeds of up to 25mph. The cabs are designed to take four passengers along with their luggage. They will also be big enough for a bicycle or a pushchair.

The first stage of the project, costing about £30m, is due to come into service later next year to take passengers on a four-minute journey from a car park to the new terminal 5, which will open in the spring. If it is successful, BAA, Heathrow’s operator, plans to spend £200m expanding the system, with at least 400 vehicles replacing the current fleet of shuttle buses.

“If it all goes to plan, we want to extend it across all the terminals so it links with hotels, office blocks, car parks and car rental depots,” said David Holdcroft, project manager for BAA.

The “personal rapid transit system” is already being built and has completed trials. Each pod resembles a small car with two “fronts” and sliding doors. It has conventional tyres. The pods are seen as more economical, more environmentally friendly and less prone to being stuck in traffic than existing transport inside the airport.

Martin Lowson, founder and chief executive of Advanced Transport Systems, the Bristol-based manufacturer, said it would be far more convenient for users than conventional airport transport. “Whether it is a bus, a monorail or a train, you have to wait for it to come and once on board it keeps on stopping to pick others up,” said Lowson. “This is different. It’s like a taxi – only you don’t have to stop at traffic lights.”

The pods will be guided by infrared sensors along 7ft-wide concrete roadways. For the 2.6-mile-long terminal 5 section, they will be raised above existing roads, swooping down as they near their destinations. In later phases the taxis will travel along ground-level routes separated from other traffic by 8ft walls. Passengers will choose their destination from a list of options on a touch-sensitive screen beside the rank of waiting pods, climb in, press the “door close” button, followed by “go”. The manufacturers claim that average waiting times will be under 15 seconds.

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