Gatwick claims it will be the first airport to operate self-driving cars "airside", using a system from Oxford University spin-off Oxbotica. The vehicles will move staff around the airport, but at this stage, they will not be used by airline passengers.
If the six-month trial is successful, the airport says it may use autonomous vehicles for other purposes, such as "aircraft push back tugs, passenger load bridges, baggage tugs and transportation buses". There are about 40 potential airport applications.
Gatwick says it has 300 airside vehicles and that they are stationary 90 percent of the time. Autonomous vehicles would be able to take themselves wherever they were needed. The airport would be able to reduce the number required, and make other cost savings.
Oxbotica's Selenium autonomous driving system can be fitted to any type of vehicle. It does not require GPS satellite location, but uses LiDAR or "light detection and ranging".
Unlike radar and sonar, LiDAR uses extremely rapid pulses of laser light, which makes it very accurate. The technology has been in use since the 1960s, when laser scanners were first mounted in planes. While providing very high resolution mapping, LiDAR has also enabled the discovery of ancient archaeological features such as Roman forts.
Oxbotica is already running a number of projects with self-driving vehicles. Selenium was used for the Transport Systems Catapult (TSC) in Milton Keynes, which was the first successful test in public of self-driving vehicles in the UK. It was also used in the GATEway Project (Greenwich Automated Transport Environment) in Greenwich, with CargoPod vehicles making deliveries for Ocado, the world's largest online-only supermarket. Another project, with the Driven consortium, will involve a fleet of self-driving cars travelling from Oxford to London.
On Sunday March 18, a self-driving Uber car was involved in the first fatal crash with a pedestrian in Arizona. As a result, the company suspended its self-driving car trials in Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto.
Evgeny Chereshnev, CEO of Biolink.Tech, says that on public roads, autonomous cars "have the potential to be compromised almost 100 percent of the time ... from external sources such as other human drivers, pedestrians, cyclists and even sudden extreme weather changes."
Oxbotica co-founder Paul Newman reckons that autonomous vehicles will actually be safer in the long run. Last year he told the Guardian that "90 percent of all accidents are caused by distraction. Distraction is the one thing that machines don't do. They have super human abilities to concentrate."
However, Gatwick's self-driving cars will operate at relatively low speeds in a restricted and tightly controlled environment, which should be within the capabilities of current technologies.