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Shoom! Heathrow Puts Laser-Guided Pods To Work

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On: Mon, Oct 10, 2011 at 2:10PM | By: Chris Salamone


Shoom! Heathrow Puts Laser-Guided Pods To Work

It’s no secret that airport efficiency has become something of an impossible dream in the last decade. And yet, the BAA (British Airport Authority) recently commissioned an automated, battery-powered pod system named ULTra intended to minimize traveler transport time while simultaneously reducing airport costs. Starting with London’s Heathrow Airport, the first phase of the ULTra network will initially connect two car parks with Terminal 5. Total travel time is about 5-6 minutes, over 1.2 miles.

Reuters reports that a seemingly-futuristic pod system has been something of a dream for British engineers over the last 60 years. Back in 2003, those bleary-eyed dreamers received some vindication. The BAA formally evaluated the long-term transportation needs of Heathrow to ascertain options with (1) low emissions, (2) high level-of-service, (3) efficient use of space, and (4) value. The study’s conclusion: pods are the only practical solution, “providing a 60% improvement in travel time and 40% operating cost savings” over traditional rail or bus options. After years of planning and negotiation, in 2009, BAA and ULTra PRT finally entered into an operating and maintenance contract intended to last 20 years.

David Holdcroft, Project Manager for Heathrow’s new pod system in Terminal 5, stated: “This innovative system forms part of BAA’s plan to transform Heathrow, improve the passenger experience and reduce the environmental impact of our operation through the development of cutting edge, green transport solutions. It offers a completely new form of public transport—one that will deliver a fast, efficient service to passengers and bring considerable environmental benefits, saving more than half of the fuel used by existing forms of public or private transport.”

A major part of the pod system’s efficiency stems from the vehicles’ use of electric power and laser guidance systems. After parking their cars, travelers headed to Terminal 5 approach a heads-up display which allows them to choose their ultimate drop-off point. Then, one of 21 different vehicles quietly zooms into place, moving yet another individual group faster than bulk transport ever could.

Outside of airports, will self-guided pod systems become our future method of transportation? Will highways become nothing more than elongated periods of unengaged sitting? This is just one of the many potential solutions to a whole slew of mass transport problems—compounded by an ever-increasing population and shrinking space. Regardless of the possible viability for pods worldwide, the BAA’s system at Heathrow appears to be a strong attempt.


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