After an airplane has been loaded with passengers at the gate, the pilot can’t exactly put his arm on the co-pilot’s seat, twist around to look behind him and throw the thing into reverse. Instead airports do what’s known as the pushback procedure, whereby a purpose-designed tractor attaches to the airplane’s front wheels and backs it away from the gate. The tractor driver has the visibility that the pilot lacks. Once properly positioned, the aircraft can then taxi to the runway under its own power.
The problem with pushbacks is the tractors themselves.
These massive and powerful machines can weigh up to 60 tons, and they take up a lot of space; they cannot live on the runway, and in between tugs must be parked in an area where they will not obstruct other airplanes. Traveling back and forth takes time; you’ve undoubtedly experienced a delay after boarding, where the pilot announces that you’re loaded and ready-to-go but “waiting for pushback.” Then there are the maintenance and fuel demands that come with any tractor.
Enter the Mototok:
Invented by German aeromechanic Kersten Eckert, the Mototok is a low-profile, remote-controlled and relatively tiny all-electric towing platform. It can be driven up to an airplane’s nose landing gear, then automatically docked to it with the push of a button.
Here’s what it looks like in action:
The emissions-free Mototok takes three hours to charge, and then it’s good for an estimated 30 pushback operations. But its real advantage is its size: Because it’s so small, it can hang out between the gates between jobs, making it a fast affair to hustle over to the next tow. British Airways reports their two Mototoks at Heathrow have led to a 54% reduction in delays.