Air cargo sheds still trail logistics warehouses in implementing technology such as robotics, wearables, and AI. But some leading handlers and carriers are catching up, as the demand and applications for data keep increasing, reports Ian Putzger
International air freight handler Dnata is literally flying when it comes to technology developments for its cargo terminal at Dallas/Ft Worth International airport (DFW). In partnership with tech start-up Gather AI, the handling company has launched autonomous drone operations inside the warehouse.
Buzzing through the facility, the drones collect inventory data, count cases, read barcodes with their cameras, and map the environment. They are paired to a tablet device to provide live inventory data. According to Dnata, the drones monitor shipments with 99.8% accuracy.
“This new technology enables us to significantly enhance efficiency and mitigate the risk of revenue leakage throughout the customer journey,” commented Guillaume Crozier, divisional vice-president for operations and product development, when the Dallas operation was unveiled in early October.
Other operators that have been exploring autonomous drone technology within air cargo handling warehouses include IAG Cargo at its facility in Madrid, where the FlytBase-developed drone technology completed various tasks including accurately detecting and reading air waybills (AWBs) and identifying empty slot locations.
Autonomous ground vehicles
Unmanned ground vehicles are also beginning to move through air freight facilities. Although elevated transfer vehicles (ETVs) and material handling systems, capable of some or full automation, have been around for some time in advanced air cargo facilities, autonomous ground vehicles have been slower to enter the market. But Swissport is now testing an ‘automated guided vehicle’ (AGV), developed by Lödige Industries, in its airside facility at Frankfurt airport (FRA). The unit has a load capacity of up to 6,800 kilos and can move a variety of ULDs.
The AGVs can potentially replace the manual transport of ULDs by slave pallet mover or other ground handling equipment and also eliminates the need for fixed ground transport routes, Lödige highlights. The AGV’s data-based control “gives users full control over operations and allows the integration into a warehouse management system for execution of fully automated transport commands”.
Within the terminal, the AGV connects several strategic handover positions. These include the roller decks of the fully automated material handling system (MHS), the pharmaceutical area, the truck dock and other stations, with the AGV covering distances between 60 and 300 metres between these locations.
Swissport’s 17,000 sqm new FRA facility, which opened in November 2020, is one of the handling firm’s most innovative warehouses. It has an automated material handling system, designed and installed by Lödige, to store and retrieve ULDs, with the AGV capability “planned from the very beginning and fits in seamlessly as a complement to the existing systems”. Swissport’s local staff were also among the company’s first employees to be equipped with a new cargo app that is currently being rolled out.
The automated material handling system “ensures efficient air cargo handling and storage, while the FAIR@Link slot booking app controls the access of trucks and optimises workflows”, Swissport highlights.
Air France KLM Martinair Cargo and Paris airport authority Groupe ADP this autumn also began testing an innovative airside cargo transport solution at Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport, using an autonomous electric vehicle developed by French startup OROK. They are intended to replace tractors and trailers usually used between cargo warehouses or baggage sorting centres and aircraft parking stands. The trial is being carried out at Air France Cargo’s G1XL cargo warehouse and initially consists of transporting empty aircraft containers between two areas inside the facility using a ‘demokart’ prototype vehicle. The tests will then gradually evolve with the use of a new generation of more efficient vehicles.
Rory Fidler, vice-president cargo technology at Menzies Aviation, favours the idea of using one warehouse as a test bed for new technologies and solutions. He is looking to deploy some new technologies at Menzies’ facility at London Heathrow for proof of concept.
“Handling systems must introduce a much, much higher level of automation,” he adds.
Logistics warehousing developments
Outside of air cargo handling facilities, automated vehicles are becoming increasingly common in general logistics warehousing, as they are already in some e-commerce warehouses. In November, Geodis revealed that it was fielding autonomous mobile robots at its distribution centre in Hong Kong. The facility is modified to accommodate an exclusive area for the autonomous units to operate, with QR coding to guide operations.
DHL Supply Chain is also in the process of rolling out autonomous forklifts in its warehouses. The deployment is part of the company’s ‘Accelerated Digitalisation’ agenda designed to commercialise and scale innovative solutions. At the moment DHL is focusing on locations in Europe, the UK and North America for the rollout.
Global CIO and COO Markus Voss says these indoor robotic transport devices can theoretically be deployed in any of the logistics company’s pallet-handling operations, adding: “We estimate that up to 30% of our global material-handling equipment fleet will use some form of robotic automation by 2030.”
While autonomous vehicles are beginning to appear in air cargo warehouses, albeit more slowly than elsewhere, wearables have also been much slower to appear in air cargo sheds and have not achieved a lot of traction so far, unlike in their logistics warehouse counterparts. This is somewhat surprising given the significantly lower cost, but also in light of early signs of promise. IATA was involved in a pilot programme with augmented reality in the warehouse three years ago, which indicated that operators could attain a 30% boost in the speed of cargo handling. In addition, the trial showed a 90% reduction in errors.
Hendrik Leyssens, vice-president for global cargo operations at Swissport, attributes the slow progress to the need for a strong and intelligent warehouse management system to leverage AI and augmented reality. Many handlers are still evaluating the options and have not made the leap to a new platform to date.
A lot of focus at the moment is on the development and use of apps. Swissport is introducing a new mobile application that will be installed on Android devices across the handler’s network. This app enables warehouse staff to record every step of the process; and it opens the door to the use of new tools, says Leyssens.
The proliferation of apps goes hand in hand with the drive to greater digitisation and data capture. By now, this is spreading from basic products and processes to more elaborate formats.
Mobile Digital Handling initiative
In November, Lufthansa Cargo moved to a new phase of its ‘Mobile Digital Handling’ initiative through a partnership with IBS Software that aims to digitalise critical handling processes for special products like pharmaceuticals, fresh produce and hazardous materials. Through the iCargo platform, this provides the airline’s partners with a single-access, easy to use set of mobile and web tools that handling agents can use to carry out specialised work flows and tasks.
In the opposite direction, information captured by handlers is made available to Lufthansa on a real-time basis. The platform also offers digital connectivity options for handlers via APIs.
But across the cargo handling sector, the availability of shipment data has been much improved through the deployment of Bluetooth readers and tags in the industry. Many of the major multinational handlers have begun installing readers in their facilities by now, and the early experiences have been encouraging. According to Leyssens, this brought about a quantum leap in visibility, allowing forwarders to access shipment data, such as ambient temperature readings for perishable shipments. Previously Swissport’s warehouses had been black holes to them, he quips.
Progress in users’ attitudes
Importantly, the progress on the technology front appears to have been matched by progress in users’ attitudes. Earlier worries about shared data being used by other players in a competitive manner seem to be giving way to a greater readiness to share air waybill data on a platform for the benefit of all parties involved, notes Fidler; so, the flow of data between airlines, forwarders and handlers is improving.
Fidler is looking for similar progress in the warehouse for the adoption of technology. “The change management and the mindset of the people in the warehouse is to me the biggest challenge to rolling out next-gen technology,” he says. “There is a huge reticence to implement change, as it is often seen as a threat.”
Meanwhile, the quest for data is becoming all-encompassing, accelerated by the growth of e-commerce air freight traffic. Bert Selis, vice-president of air cargo and logistics at Liege airport, notes that the pursuit of e-commerce led to a fundamental change in thinking at the airport’s management. It brought about the realisation that e-commerce firms build digital flows first and then construct physical flows to match these, which led to a reassessment of the role of an airport. “It becomes a place in a chain where data connect,” he says.
Airside vehicle management gains
The flow of data between stakeholders is becoming an integral part of the interaction. Among the technology that handler Alliance Ground International deployed in its new 76,000 sq ft (7,000 sqm) off-airport facility that opened in October near Newark International airport was truck queuing and management software. The congestion that has plagued many gateways this year has led a growing number of handlers as well as airport authorities to the conclusion that truck access can be improved significantly with an online exchange of data in advance in order to speed up processes and direct arriving trucks to available gates.
A year ago, Dnata implemented an appointment and dock management platform at Dubai International airport that integrates into its own system. The platform factors in multiple parameters, such as shipment characteristics and vehicle type, for slot allocation.
At a growing number of airports, handlers have no need to invest in truck management capability, as more and more airport authorities are intent on playing a more proactive role in the development of cargo business and are reaching out to providers of cargo community platforms. Frequently the first functionality from the range of available options that is chosen is truck management.
Data capture advances
Besides tapping into data flows from other parties, handlers are also stepping up data capture on their premises. For Dnata’s cargo terminal at Singapore’s Changi airport, this begins at reception of freight with the use of Cargo Eye, a technology that uses 3D cameras in combination with algorithms to accurately capture shapes and dimensions of cargo.
The data captured there flows to ‘Cargo Mind’, a module that is integrated with Dnata’s cargo management system. Cargo Mind comes into play for load planning, using algorithms to maximise loads on a plane by computing the best distribution of cargo among the ULDs in line for the flight.
Menzies’ Fidler regards pallet building as one of the first applications of data analytics in the warehouse. By his estimate, this can achieve gains of about 10%.
Improving flow forecasts
Another area where artificial intelligence is showing much promise is in planning. By combining historical data with various external macroeconomic data sets, Swissport is leveraging AI for its weekly and monthly forecasts. Leyssens is looking forward to advancing this to a more granular level. This could give a station a better idea how many trucks to expect at what time and the loads on board.
Data integration is essential to unfold the potential of AI and maximise the various data streams, he says. Ultimately what is needed is a central platform that can connect the various building blocks, a kind of brain for the whole system. This will open many new possibilities, from dynamic storage and yield management to volume optimisation and workload distribution, he reflects.
Unified platform needed
He is not alone with this vision. Fidler also sees a unified platform as a crucial step on the technology journey for Menzies. By creating better structured and consistent, standardised processes with the help of technology, handlers can change the rules of engagement with their clientele, he argues.
“Our customers want consistency, process adherence and accurate performance reporting,” he says. “If we can create this standardisation, the airlines will move away from the current commercial model of RFP after three years and introduce much broader commercial agreements across the handlers’ networks.
“Once systems are in place, it is essential to use them to their fullest and not to look for work-arounds,” he adds.
The journey there will not be easy. The long lead times to implementation, the cost involved, and the fact that most available solutions follow a one-size-fits-all approach that ignores the differences in requirements between large hubs, medium-sized airports and small stations are all significant hurdles to overcome, Fidler notes.