There are many steps that take place before your plane is ready to take off.

Before even boarding the plane, it first needs to be taxied by airport staff to the gate — a method that involves running the jet engines.

“They put out a lot of pollutants,” Brett Stone, a Utah Valley University mechanical engineering professor, told Deseret News. “And the real problem there, too, is that they’re putting a lot of pollutants right next to the tarmac workers who are there breathing that in constantly.”

He, his colleague Matt Jensen and 14 UVU students believe they are close to solving that problem. On Friday, at the Provo Airport, they tested their prototype electric and autonomous vehicle, which promises to reduce emissions while moving airplanes at airports.

The students involved in the two-semester senior capstone course are mechanical engineering and computer science students.

“At the beginning of last semester, we had a problem statement from Dr. Stone that said, ‘We want a tug that’s going to pull a plane, and it’s got to be all-electric, and you have $10,000, go,’” Ammon Traeden, a mechanical engineering major on the project, told the Deseret News.

“And so, working together, we had two separate designs and combined them into one in January. Then, we started ordering parts and putting them together,” he added. “And just the amount of experience you get from failing over and over and over again, and then fixing it, finding solutions to the problem, we ended up with something that worked really well.”

The project was partly funded with a $10,000 grant from the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation, which is continuing its investment in STEM education.

“These students are the creative problem solvers that Utah and our world need,” Jonathan Whitesides of Rocky Mountain Power said in a press release. “That’s why the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation is thrilled to support their work to develop electric-powered tugs — an innovative solution with potential benefits for the environment, the economy and our shared energy future.”

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Following the Provo Aiport vehicle test, the students will present their design mid-April in a senior design showcase at UVU.

Utah Valley University student Cache Fulton remote drives the school's prototype electric-powered, autonomous vehicle during a demo at Provo Airport in Provo on Friday, April 12, 2024. The tug will reduce emissions while performing the task of moving airplanes at busy airports. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Traeden emphasized the work he and his fellow classmates put into making their design come to life. “During some of the weeks, at least half of us worked 40- or 50-hour work weeks for three weeks in a row,” while also juggling other classes and working full-time jobs, he said.

Kelly Brooks, a mechanical engineering student, told Deseret News that being the only female on the team was a unique experience. However, working on the project has led her to want to continue working in aviation engineering as a career.

“It is definitely weird to be the only girl sometimes,” Brooks said. “You kind of just have to own it.”

“I’ve always enjoyed learning how things are made and built, so that’s why I went into mechanical engineering to begin with,” she added. Referring to the capstone project, she said, “It came a really long way. I’m very proud of what we were able to get done. So I’d clarify it as a success.”

Following the demo, the professor plans to advance to the next project stage: Constructing a fully operational, autonomous electric tug capable of towing a 737-sized aircraft. They have applied for patents for their design and hope to see their tug commercially available in the foreseeable future.

In the students’ efforts to create the tug, Professor Jensen said in the press release, “They start to realize the purpose of them coming to school and getting that degree is not to say that they’ve made it through all these specific classes: It’s to learn how to learn.”