Working out of RS&H’s San Francisco office, Joey Gale is not far away from ground zero for autonomous vehicle research in the U.S. As an environmental specialist for the Aviation Practice, Gale sees a future where autonomous vehicles aren’t only found on our nation’s roads; they also make a lot of sense for some airport operations.

This past summer, he and young professionals at San Francisco International Airport and HMMH put together a proposal that employs autonomous aircraft towing vehicles for aircraft. The proposal, “Taxiing into Autonomy,” has won the 2017 Airport Consultants Council (ACC) Young Professionals Innovation Competition.

Using these vehicles would improve airfield and gate utilization efficiency by making it easier and less costly to tow aircraft to remote parking positions, reducing pushback maneuvering time by eliminating engine run-up and tug disconnect times, according to the proposal.

“We established a roadmap of how an autonomous tow vehicle project could be implemented, looking at operations and dealing with regulations,” Gale said. “When I first the idea of being involved with this project, I was like, ‘Where do I sign up?’ The idea was very attractive to me.”

Gale was tasked with handling environmental aspects of the proposal, ranging from reducing air emissions to finding Federal Aviation Administration grant opportunities. The group’s research took them to the NASA research center in Palo Alto, Calif. – a research paper published by NASA on autonomous taxiing at airports sparked the proposal idea.

The group also met with autonomous vehicle researchers from Nissan and with leaders at Taxibot, an Israeli aerospace company that has designed remote-controlled tow vehicles for select airports and airlines in Europe.

“What we found is that this could help eliminate miscommunication between the tow vehicle, pilots and air traffic controllers,” Gale said. “And because the vehicles would be electrified instead of diesel-powered, there are environmental benefits as well.”

The group will soon present their submission at the 2018 ACC/AAAE Airport Planning, Design and Construction Symposium in Denver. The team will also have the opportunity to display their submission at the event.

Supported in part by the ACC Members Foundation, the annual Innovation Competition is part of a larger program offered by the ACC Young Professionals Forum as a means to engage the young professionals in ACC member firms and enhance their professional careers. It’s certainly an opportunity Gale was thankful to have.

“I was happy to be part of this effort and meet all these amazing minds,” he said. “It was just a really special experience to be a part of.”

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Joe VanHoose
Joe VanHoose
Joe is a storyteller with more than a decade of experience in media relations, with particular specialty in writing and promoting. He can be reached at