WheelTug: Helping aircraft taxi to a cleaner future

A front wheel system that enables aircraft to get from gate to runway using electric power rather than the engines could save a billion gallons of jet fuel from being burnt

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It was a simple idea based on a simple premise: jet engines do not give out emissions when they are switched off. So, why not use electrical power to move aircraft when they are on the ground?

It was an idea that led Isaiah Cox to found WheelTug, a company that fits electric motors into the front wheels of aircraft, enabling the plane to taxi from gate to runway without using the engines and, as such, without burning fuel and emitting carbon dioxide and other particulates.

“It replaces the front nose wheel,” Mr Cox, who is also Wheeltug's chief executive, told The National.

“It’s built into the aircraft and flies with the airplane, so everywhere you go, you have a WheelTug system and that allows the pilot to keep the engines off for longer.

“Land the plane and WheelTug will take you in [to the gate] and WheelTug will drive you out. It allows you to get all of that functionality wherever the airplane is.”

Fixing the 'Achilles heel'

Mr Cox sees ground operations as the “Achilles heel” of the aviation industry. At many of the world's airports, planes are now spending much more time on the ground than in years gone by as demand leads to more flights being offered, with corresponding air and ground traffic congestion.

At the moment, most aircraft are hooked up to a ground operations towing vehicle and moved to a point where the pilots take over and use the engines to taxi to the runway.

With WheelTug technology in the front wheel assembly, an aircraft can move, powered by electric motors connected to the plane's auxiliary power unit or APU (a small engine in the rear of the aircraft), from gate to runaway by itself. No need for a tow, no need to use the engines for propulsion beyond having to warm them up.

The technology can be retrofitted and WheelTug has 26 airlines, including flydubai, with 2,700 planes that are lined up to have the motors fitted to their front wheel assemblies.

At the moment, the company is busy acquiring certification for its technology and hopes it will be operational in the first commercial airliners by the beginning of 2026.

It is about two thirds of the way through a certification checklist with the Federal Aviation Administration in the US and, if all goes according to plan, the Spanish airline AlbaStar should be the first to operate with WheelTug tech.

“Once we enter service, expected in 2026, then we expect the rest of the airlines to essentially follow,” Mr Cox told The National. “In this industry, once an idea has been demonstrated and proven to work, everybody gets them.”

As such, if the global commercial aircraft fleet was to be completely retrofitted with WheelTug tech, Mr Cox believes that “would represent about one billion gallons of kerosene or SAF [sustainable aviation fuel] that is not burnt”.

Not burning fuel on the ground has advantages for airports, including reducing the general carbon footprint of aviation and lowering the levels of particulate matter emitted from jet engines that can be harmful the health of ground crews.

But it is also a question of time-saving. Because the WheelTug system is powered by the aircraft and used by the pilots, any delays that might have occurred due to problems with the arrival and hook-up of a ground vehicle tug are eliminated.

That time saved will allow for “more aircraft movements per gate per day”, according to Mr Cox, which can only mean more money for the airline.

The Rolls-Royce of finance plans

What may also attract more airlines to look at WheelTug's technology for their aircraft is the cost and financing.

WheelTug is using the power-by-the-hour payment system, an approach pioneered by the aero engine giant Rolls-Royce more than 50 years ago. Back then, because the upfront cost of jet engines was high, Rolls-Royce offered its clients a complete engine and accessory replacement service on a fixed-cost-per-flying-hour basis.

In WheelTug's case this means that airlines do not pay to have the motors fitted to their aircraft's wheels up front, but rather make payments from the savings they make on fuel consumption as a result.

Also, at months or a year at the outside, the break-even point for getting WheelTug technology fitted is relatively short when compared with that of a jet engine, which can take up to eight years to break even depending on its use.

WheelTug already has around 15 per cent of the world's narrow-bodied aircraft signed up for its technology and Mr Cox is expecting an avalanche of orders once certification is acquired and commercial operations begin.

But if and when this happens, the company faces becoming a takeover target or having the technology itself co-opted by the large aircraft manufacturers.

Sometimes this happens, but often the large manufacturers end up partnering with smaller suppliers.

A good example is winglets and sharklets, those upturned sections at the ends of aircraft wings designed to reduce drag. Aerospace manufacturer Aviation Partners makes winglets for Boeing and successfully sued Airbus more than a decade ago when it began making what it called sharklets. Aviation Partners claimed sharklets were essentially winglets under a different name and won an undisclosed sum.

Nonetheless, Mr Cox feels any talk of takeovers or partnerships will have to wait until WheelTug becomes commercial.

“We, as a company, are interested in airlines as our customers. We see the most opportunity for further development and for maximum leveraging working with airlines directly,” he told The National.

Updated: May 22, 2024, 4:14 PM