If you ever find yourself on an airport apron, the chances are high that some ground support vehicles that you encounter will be manufactured by MULAG. The German company’s airport tractors, container pallet transporters and conveyor belt cars zip across the world’s airports, handling baggage, hauling container pallets up and down the strip.

Founded in 1953 in the southwest of Germany, the firm was originally dedicated to the manufacture of farming vehicles. Within a few years, the company had won a number of deals to export several different types of three and four-wheel tractors overseas. The shorthand for the exported vehicles was MULAG, short for ‘motorised universal load equipment’ in German.

This focus on agricultural vehicles would, however, only last a couple more years. As the market for tractors became saturated in the 1970s, MULAG decided to specialise in other areas, refocusing their production line to manufacture construction machines, heavy goods vehicles and sewer cleaning vans. By the following decade, the company had finally decided to focus on two main areas: roadside maintenance and airport ground support vehicles.

Airport specialisation

Today, MULAG employs more than 280 individuals in two factories situated in the Black Forest area of Germany. The firm now supplies airports across the world with conveyor belt vehicles, towing tractors, container transporters and other, more specialised vehicles. The manufacturing process is meticulous; some models of tractors undergo up to four work cycles of continuous flow production to be assembled. MULAG’s range of ground support vehicles for airports can be equipped with up to four drive technologies: diesel, gas, hybrid and pure electric.

One of the firm’s most popular products is its Comet Towing Tractor. Each model incorporates an independent chassis designed to achieve an optimal load balance, while allowing service technicians to easily access each and every service point on the vehicle should it require repair. Furthermore, each Comet unit incorporates hydraulically suspended seats and clearly arranged operating controls, allowing each vehicle to cater to any driver. During longer transportation applications, several models in the Comet line are also equipped to shift up to an additional gear with the aid of an electronic controller called the ‘EcoDrive’, thereby reducing CO2 emissions and improving the sustainability of the airport’s vehicle roster all round.

Now, the Comet line is being updated to incorporate new technologies. The Comet Diesel tractors have been refurbished with a new cabin, engine bonnet and an optimised, ergonomic dashboard. MULAG is also venturing into the production of electric vehicles. The new Comet 3E electric tractor is as ideally suited to baggage handling as its diesel-guzzling predecessors, has a dead weight of 3.7t and can travel at speeds of up to 30km/h. This model is followed by the Comet 6E. With a dead weight of 6.5t, the new model has a powerful two-circuit regenerative break system, with heavy duty axels that are suited for even the most demanding cargo applications.

Electric future

It is the Comet 4E that showcases MULAG’s commitment to electric vehicles as the future of its airside tractor businesses. It is 1t lighter than the 6E, and capable of handling light cargo and baggage. Its creators also developed an autonomous version of the vehicle. Capable of scanning its surroundings with a multisensory array, the Comet 4E Autodrive’s onboard computer matches ground markings with a map of the airport side. By doing this, it is not only able to map the ramp in its immediate vicinity, but remains aware of oncoming vehicle traffic and wider aircraft operations.

Recent demonstrations of the model have seen it move autonomously on the apron according to instructions delivered from an operations control centre. MULAG envisions that autonomous ground support equipment in the future will allow it to increase the overall safety of ramp operations through the application of standardised processes. It seems that the future of baggage handling on the apron may be driverless. Whether that’s true or not, chances are that it’ll be a MULAG vehicle that will be used to do it.