Air freight frontrunners are exploring various game-changing technology options involving automation and robotics – as well as short-term and mid-term gains from optimising the human in the warehouse, reports Will Waters
In the last few years, rapid developments in information and communications technology (ICT) have brought robots and ‘cobots’ – collaborative robots – and augmented-reality technology tools increasingly into the world of warehousing and logistics, and numerous trials in the use of drones and autonomous vehicles.
Although the integrators have adopted a more technology-driven approach, the traditional air cargo handling market has been cautious about investing in automation and robotics – for various reasons, including relatively low margins, the challenge of handling large and irregular-shaped cargo shipments, and a heavy regulatory environment. However, the potential for time-saving, space-saving, and resource-saving efficiencies means that air freight industry frontrunners are investigating various options.
Dominik Dieckmann, senior manager for freight and logistics at management consultancy Accenture, tells this year’s Air Cargo Europe conference in Munich: “My observation when it comes to robotics and automation in this industry is that there are a lot of good things happening – we see a lot of ideation and proofs of concept coming up; but where the industry fails is industrialisation and bringing this in on a large scale.”
However, for some, space and demand pressures mean they have little choice but to seek technology-driven solutions, highlights Bernd Struck, senior vice president for UAE cargo and DWC airline services at ground handler Dnata. “I am forced to go into automation and robotics usage simply to survive,” he explains. “We have around 2.7 million tonnes of cargo handled in a very limited, constrained facility at Dubai International (DXB) for the next 10 years, with no chance to expand them until we relocate into Dubai World Central (DWC). We are growing currently at 5-6% a year, and so our facilities, which are full today, will need to be able to handle an extra 60%.”
One area where he is hopeful of introducing significant efficiency improvements is by integrating landside and airside functions, something rarely done at airports. “We have started and will be rolling out later this year an appointments system – not just for landside,” he explains. “Customers will be forced to use this system if they want to do business with us, and we’ll give them a guaranteed time of handling of roughly 45 minutes. Today, they may have to wait sometimes for eight hours to get a handling slot, because people come at the same time.
“With the appointment system, we’ll be able to use the 24 hours much more effectively, and customers will be able to plan – and bring down their costs of staff and trucking much lower. This appointment system will be integrated with our materials handling systems (MHS), so once we have made an appointment, the MHS knows you are coming and the goods will be prepared for import or export. And it will be linked to an integrated resource management system for the crew for the build-up of the cargo, and the crew bringing this cargo to the aircraft. With that, we hope to increase capacity and customer satisfaction.”
But he sees much more scope to use new technology and automation, noting: “We are looking to do anything that is repetitive in a different way.” Dnata has been investigating a number of things – for example, trialling some blockchain initiatives for AWB handling with flydubai. “We have seen it can solve a number of issues providing dedicated data to dedicated resources, and we are continuing to work on that,” says Struck.
Another issue many handlers have is tracing lost cargo. “There, our proof of concept has shown the potential of drones in the warehouse to search and identify cargo and really substantially decrease the cost of manpower,” Struck notes. “For example, I have 45 people full time equivalents working on tracing cargo.
“So, there is potential that needs to be identified; and these are just a few examples we are working on.”
For others, a move to a new greenfield location brings an opportunity to introduce the latest developments. Turhan Özen, chief cargo officer at Turkish Airlines, says: “We intend to deploy new technology in the most efficient way to our new facility. As well as being one of the largest in the world, the intention is also to make the facility at the new Istanbul Airport “the smartest cargo terminal in the world”.
Özen notes: “Until recently, air cargo handling has never been fully benefiting from ASRS (automated storage and retrieval systems) or container handling systems as much as typical warehousing logistics can benefit from automation systems, because of the requirements of the industry: we are handing millions of different SKUs; we have our safety and security and quality standards and regulations; we have a huge need for flexibility, in terms of speed and flexing the volume.
“But since recently, we have something else in terms of technology: we now have things that are enabling the human interface to be much faster and more efficient – for example smart glasses, wearable technologies, artificial intelligence, and several other aspects of technology – Industry 4.0.
“I believe it’s a huge opportunity for any cargo business. Because now, we can use our operators’ human brain at its highest level.”
He believes this is the real new opportunity for the next 15 to 20 years – “rather than fully automated handling, storage, picking, quality checking, and everything.
“Maybe in 20 or 30 years there can be full artificial intelligence and robotics that can do it without any intervention of humans. But for the foreseeable future, (air cargo handling will continue to need) human minds, our operators’ minds, from a quality-check perspective, from a safety perspective”. But their capabilities can be enhanced by using “wearable technologies, for example voice-directed technologies, smart gloves, and everything to really connect the human mind with cyberspace.”
Although the new Istanbul Airport is now open, Turkish Airlines’ 175,000sqm new cargo terminal there is under construction still, with Turkish Cargo operating from a satellite terminal at Ataürk airport currently. “So, before finalising the new terminal, we are using the construction to do some trial projects and proofs of concept – as an innovation lab to really see how much further we can integrate these new technologies into our conventional ASRS and automation systems,” Özen says.
Norma Hoeft, head of IoT (internet of things) at German Bionic, believes her company’s robotic exoskeletons can also help enhance human performance in the cargo warehouse physically and by connecting them better to the digital world. The exoskeleton can be used by people to lift up weights of, say, 25 kg but feel no weight stress on their bodies – something that has been trialled for baggage handling, but not yet for cargo. “And we can connect our exoskeleton to other devices, for example smart gloves and smart glasses, and we can collect data because it is Industry 4.0-ready,” says Hoeft. “The battery life of our exoskeleton lasts about eight hours, so people can also plug devices into that.”
Like Özen, Hoeft does not believe it will be possible to automate everything, at least in the foreeable future. “Otherwise, we would not be in the market,” she notes. “We believe in smart assisting and augmenting the people that are there, and providing the technology – some would consider it a bridge technology.”
Max Conrady, senior vice president for cargo at Germany’s Frankfurt Airport, highlights the challenges facing airports to support its clients’ modernisation plans. “We are not only providing services ourselves, but we are also in the position of a kind of landlord, to support all the different stakeholders to do their business in the best way they can, and provide the infrastructure that meets future demands – and robotics and automation, which is being used by our customers – as well as exploring opportunities ourselves to adopt different and new approaches.
“Our main drivers are the lack of trained and experienced staff. Every year, we are lacking 400 or 500 people, and so automation will be a key driver in improving the productivity in our industry as well and maintain growth in the industry.”
He continues: “One of the major tasks at an airport is identifying what will be the future in terms of infrastructure – for example, what kind of networks from hardware to software networks. The future of the airport is not the next two or three years, but the next 20 to 30 years. This makes it different for us, because of the fast-changing industry when it comes to robotics and automation, and the computer industry, and for technology with life cycles of two to three years.
“So, it’s a challenge to identify what will be the infrastructure of the future – for example, what will be implemented to detect unit load devices (ULDs), to help users automate warehouses? How can we assist them to get those into service?”
Autonomous ‘smart trailers’
Among its more ambitious cargo modernisation projects, Frankfurt Airport last year launched a two-year ‘Smart Air Cargo Trailer’ research project aimed at increasing process efficiency, minimising cargo wait times at ramps, and optimising the use of resources at CargoCity South by exploring the use of autonomous vehicles. The project is partly subsidised by Germany’s regional state of Hesse, with other partners including the Fraunhofer Institute, RheinMain University, autonomous vehicle manufacturer KAMAG, cargo handler LUG, shipping companies Sovereign and Dachser, and logistics software company CargoSteps.
The project is exploring using a cloud-based platform to automatically manage short-distance shipments at CargoCity South. Intelligent ‘smart trailers’ are equipped with complex camera systems that continuously record how full the trailer is. Once a certain loading level has been reached, a control system automatically requests an autonomous truck for transportation. The trucks pick up the trailer and take it to the relevant ramp destination where it is processed by a forwarding agent or cargo handler.
The aim of this need-based order system is to minimize wait times at the ramps and increase utilization of the trucks, to provide faster and more efficient cargo processes. As part of the research project, mixed traffic operations consisting of both autonomous shipments and regular truck and car traffic are being tested.
One key part of the study is identifying the regulatory environment required, says Conrady.
Dubai also has ambitious plans for an autonomous system of moving cargo around the airport – underground – but this is for the full opening of Al Maktoum International Airport (DWC), expected around 2027 or 2028.
“One of the challenges that we have in Dubai is distances, which, for the cargo industry, can be really killing at airports,” says Struck. “So, our plans have a complete underground infrastructure where the cargo build-up is delivered one floor down, and automatically transported to and from the aircraft.
“This is something that we will really implement in DWC in the future, and this will avoid other challenges that we have – especially around traffic congestion on the tarmac, which is a big thing at large airports. It will help not only the safety of people and the aircraft, but also efficient and quicker handling.”
Frankfurt’s Conrady notes: “As an airport with lots of restrictions in terms of the usage of land, we can’t build a completely new apron with under-apron tunnels taking ULDs directly to the aircraft. This is absolutely impossible at Frankfurt. So, we have to find a way to use the old infrastructure in a new way, to serve as best as we can.”
Autonomous air cargo transport
The Smart Air Cargo Trailer (SAT) research project at Frankfurt Airport’s CargoCitySouth aims to transport air freight consignments autonomously and efficiently, in line with demand, between the freight forwarder and the air freight handler.
The two-year project aims to develop intelligent truck trailers, ‘smart trailers’, with which autonomous transport can be carried out via a cloud-based platform – and in a way that is optimal for forwarders and handlers.
The heart of SAT is a complex control algorithm that takes a variety of shipment information from individual packages into account, such as the LAT. A camera system installed in the trailer will generate the loading data. It is intended to simultaneously capture several packages on a pallet and read their barcodes – even if they are partially covered, during the loading process.
If the codes cannot be seen at all, the system is supposed to conclude, from a comparison with the order, whether all the packages are still present. If the trailer is fully loaded or loaded with a time-critical shipment, the system automatically requests a tractor.
Those involved can access all data via the cloud on a smartphone, tablet or computer. Forwarders and dispatchers can also control transports according to their available capacity – for example, postponing deliveries when their ramps are full.
Fraport says: “The combination of self-planning systems in conjunction with autonomously running transports will be a must in the future in order to make processes more efficient, increase the range of the existing infrastructure, and counteract the shortage of manpower.”
Struck says he is also mostly focused currently on more immediate needs, and he has a wishlist of items he encourages technology companies to focus on creating solutions for.
“For example, for cargo screening and x-ray handling.” he says. “Dubai is a crossroads for the continents, and we have a lot of sea-air product – arriving by sea, mainly from countries where intelligent security processes are necessary. Today, we bring it through x-ray machines and then lay it on the floor and then either do explosive detection by smearing or you have dogs running around. It is not very efficient.
“I would ask the industry to provide me with products like in baggage handling, where we they have a five-step screening programme that is to a certain extent automated. In cargo, we don’t have this. So, I’d like it to go that way, to integrate a secondary screening process to kill that bottleneck that we have.”
He continues: “Another bottleneck we have is also to do with sea-air. Sea containers are huge, so when a sea container hits our facility with 10-15,000 small parcels in there, what do you do then? Load them off one by one? The existing tools we have seen so far are not really optimised yet, so I’m calling on the industry to help me to do that in a more efficient – and more cost-efficient – way.”
He also calls for “a robotic tool that is better than the experience of our people currently building pallets, to help us use every unused cubic metre to optimise the load”, noting: “These are some examples of where we need to go in the future with automation – now and also in the long-term future. Sometimes I think that the long-term is seen as more important, whereas I feel the near-term should be more important.”
Meanwhile, recent developments in bluetooth technology and its application have brought significant recent progress in the potential to track and monitor the status of ULDs and the cargo within them – also offering other benefits by exploiting the data captured.
Benoit Dumont, CEO of ULD pooling specialist Unilode, says: “We have around 175,000 containers and pallets moving around the globe. A lot of we are doing is about repositioning units where the airline wants them to be, so knowing where they are is very important.”
But that is just the start. Unilode is rolling out a programme whereby all of its units will become digitised and sees the potential to automate “all the processes from the build-up to delivery; you will know where things are, whether they are ready to be loaded, ready to be released from customs; then you have a lot more visibility of your cargo. It would revolutionise that, it would automate that; you’ll enable the process to be much smoother; and it would impact not only your quality, but also safety.”
He estimates ULD cost savings of 10-15% for an airline that runs its own fleet of ULDs, simply from optimising their use. “And that will also have a positive impact on the environment and other things. And there are a lot of other interesting use cases beyond that.
“With the use of IoT, you could also make sure that the cargo has been loaded in the right place on the aircraft, as you would have sensors that would identify that, with loggers, that say ‘I’m a pallet carrying perishable goods’, and so the cargo has to be no more than this temperature’. You have probably also lots of use cases in terms of the reduction of insurance and claims from customers – and reduce a lot of issues that are increasing congestion at an airport.”
He says Unilode is “very happy to make this investment for the industry”, noting that by digitalising 150,000 or 175,000 ULDs “you can create, probably, a standard the airlines can use. We are a neutral partner because we are working in the pooling environment, and I think there are a lot of benefits from this technology.”
The benefits of standards
While IoT “is obviously something that we are into”, he cautions that around 70% of IoT programmes are not successful. “So, how do you make this successful? You need to create a solution that is beneficial for the ecosystem. In the same way that you don’t have five different mailboxes – one for UPS, one for DHL, etc. – you want to create a standard, interoperable environment to enable all these technologies to be connected.”
Rather than an airline that has 20,000-30,000 containers investing millions of dollars to create its own network of readers, it is better to share that infrastructure, he argues. “Although there are a lot of ideas and use cases, to put that into practice is very difficult,” Dumont notes. “Who is going to do this first?
“I really believe the solution is in collaboration, in creating an ecosystem of players, and maybe the airport authority is a good catalyst in one region. So that’s my take on how to make it viable for the industry.”
But he says there is no point in waiting for the perfect solution. “You can always wait for it to be better – it is like the iPhone 1,” he observes. “This is about creating an environment that you’re able to automate in stages, and improve the current status. Don’t dream about it. Say: ‘how can we improve the current status’? and gradually evolve into something, rather than to design something in the lab that probably would not work.”
Accenture’s Dieckmann highlights an example from another industry: how mining giant Rio Tinto put devices on all its assets – trucks and mining tools – and now has a huge amount of centralised visibility and control of its operations.
But Fraport’s Conrady highlights difficulties an airport has that a mining company doesn’t face: “For example, we have so many different partners on the airport with different approaches, with different technologies and levels of technologies. So, it would be a key success factor to bring all the technologies together and define standards, to get the technology to interact together, to keep the supply chain running.
“There are also some safety and security items as well as regulations that give us not the freedom right now to act in a robotic and automated level. There is often a need for decisions to be made by humans – for example, for insurance reasons, the more complicated tasks have to be done by humans.
“In the future, I think that autonomous vehicles will have fewer accidents on the apron than humans do right now. But there is not a regulatory scheme in place right now to support this kind of future organisation.”
Attempting to predict where the most likely game-changing shifts will come into the cargo handling environment within the next five to 10 years, Dumont responds: “A lot of the cargo moves on ULD equipment, so the equipment is a kind of common denominator. If you can track that end to end, and if you can connect that to piece level, that will help to free up a lot of capacity to let other people do things.
“In this industry, we have a huge cost of non-quality; we have things that don’t work, and we find a way round, and we accept that. I think what needs to happen is to pull these processes down and look at them and say: ‘we will not accept this cost on quality’, and make use of technology to remove these cumbersome tasks. I think by using tracking devices on ULDs is one thing that during the next five years will be game changing for the industry.”
Struck responds: “I believe our call is to initiate really good process management – identify that and get the IT on board to control that it is delivered that way. I think this will be the biggest challenge, because nowadays people are doing the job uncontrolled. And once we have a tool that steers the process and does not accept deviation from the process, I think this will be a long way forward.”
And for Turkish Cargo’s Özen, it is about optimising and cargo handling staff through the intelligent use of the digitally connected technologies that are becoming available: “All the wearable technologies, probably interfacing with typical warehouse management systems and work-order management systems. I believe there are huge opportunities to interface between these conventional systems with wearable technologies that can enable the operator to be faster, error free, and more efficient.”