London's Gatwick Airport has announced its intention to become the first airport in the world to investigate the use of driverless, autonomous vehicles in a new trial to be conducted this summer, according to the airport's website.

With more than 300 airside vehicles currently in use, the airport says these are stationary around 90 percent of the time, and the hope is that costs could be saved by making their use more efficient, reducing the number of vehicles required and freeing up staff.

In the future, uses could include delivering baggage to aircraft, shuttling passenger buses from the terminal to the aircraft, moving freight around the airport or even pushback tugs used to position aircraft. At the gate itself, jet bridges could move to and from the aircraft automatically.

More than 40 uses have apparently been identified by IATA, which supports this new technology. Each use has a specific mission, which suits the development of the software behind the driverless vehicles.

"If this trial proves successful, then in the future we could have an Uber-like service operating across the airfield which staff can hail as and when they need to travel," said Cathal Corcoran, Chief Information Officer, Gatwick Airport.

The implications could mean the way airports deal with airside vehicles the world over is changed, adding safety and efficiency to the range of duties performed.

Safety is, of course, a key issue. Only last week a 49-year-old woman was killed in Arizona when a self-driving Uber collided with her as she crossed the street. The issues at airports include the safety of staff and passengers on the ramp, not to mention the millions of dollars of aircraft parked at every gate just waiting to be driven into.

Initially, the vehicles at Gatwick will only be operated on the airside roads between the airport's North and South terminals to demonstrate they can be used safely. Data collected will then be shared with the Department of Transport and Civil Aviation Authority to allow it to be advanced further.

The technology behind the vehicles at Gatwick is supplied by Oxbiotica, a leading developer of software used to enable vehicles to operate autonomously without reliance on GPS or other technology outside the vehicle. Using cameras that are not affected by lighting or weather conditions, the vehicles will learn their environment and share this with other autonomous vehicles to continually learn how to operate.

The technology behind the vehicles at Gatwick is supplied by Oxbiotica. (Image: Oxbiotica)

"Airports offer an incredibly interesting domain for our autonomous driving software," Dr. Graeme Smith, CEO of Oxbotica, said. "There is a huge diversity of vehicles, each with a very specific mission. The challenge of choreographing all of the activity around an individual plane, or in support of airport operations is immense, and we look forward to working closely with Gatwick on this initial pilot that will demonstrate our self-driving technology carrying staff around the airfield."

No doubt airports around the world will be watching with interest at the Gatwick trials. Particularly large facilities with hundreds of vehicles and staff needed to operate them could see the way they run airside operations revolutionised by this new technology.

"This trial is just the start, and much more research will be needed, but ultimately this could be the start of widespread use of autonomous vehicles on airfields across the world," Corcoran concluded. "The new technology is a more efficient way to manage vehicles and could lead to a reduction in the number of vehicles required, their associated costs and harmful emissions."