By Tova Cohen
TEL AVIV (Reuters) - The Boeing 737 narrow-body jet has been certified in Europe and Israel for airport towing by the TaxiBot system developed by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and its partners, the state-owned Israeli company said on Monday.
The annual global cost of towing passenger aircraft is estimated to reach $8.4 billion by 2020, but TaxiBot has the potential to reduce the cost to less than $3 billion a year, IAI said. The company said that the system also reduces CO2 emissions by 85 percent and noise by 50 percent.
TaxiBot is a semi-robotic, pilot-controlled vehicle designed to transport planes from airport gate to the runway and back without using the aircraft's engines. It was developed by IAI and its French risk-sharing partner TLD Group, a maker of airport ground support equipment, in cooperation with Lufthansa Engineering and Operational Services.
Boeing and Airbus provided support for the project, which is expected to begin in-service evaluation next month for Lufthansa 737 flights at Frankfurt Airport.
A Boeing 747 or Airbus A320 consumes about a ton of fuel (1,250 liters) for a 17-minute taxi before takeoff, which TaxiBot would reduce by 85 percent. The TaxiBot itself consumes 25-30 liters of fuel.
"This innovative system will create an eco-friendly revolution in the commercial aviation industry and will save millions of dollars in fuel for airlines, ground-handling companies and airports worldwide," IAI Chief Executive Joseph Weiss said.
IAI expects the TaxiBot to receive approval for operational tests with Airbus A320 narrow-body aircraft soon. The 737 and A320 families comprise more than 70 percent of the world's active commercial aircraft fleet, it said.
European and U.S. airlines are in advanced talks to use the TaxiBot, IAI Said.
Last month IAI and TLD signed an agreement with Air France to evaluate use of TaxiBot on the airline's wide-body fleet at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport.
Authorization for use on wide-body aircraft is expected by the end of 2015, IAI said.
IAI officials estimate that TaxiBot will earn the Israeli company hundreds of millions of dollars over the coming years.
"We invested tens of millions of dollars in this project, as did TLD," Shuki Eldar, vice president of business development, told reporters. "Lufthansa, which helped us and was involved, also invested."
IAI, which supplies the robot for the TaxiBot, is setting up a company in Europe to market the product. TLD supplies the tractors for the system.
(Editing by David Goodman)