New technologies are changing how cargo equipment is traced throughout its journey and there is a great deal of benefit for airlines, shippers and customers.

    Airlines have been investing in technologies to keep track of their containers, pallets and unit load devices (ULDs) to improve not only their own operations, but also the quality of information they can give the customer about their shipment.

    Two technologies seeing investment are radio frequency identification (RFID) and Bluetooth. While the former is regularly encountered by people in shops as security tags, and the latter at home with consumer electronics, for aviation they are a relatively new development.

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    “Status, location tracking is still pretty basic in the air freight industry. Real-time location, status tracking is something that the industry is increasingly working towards, but is still very rare,” explains Yuval Baruch, Hermes cargo management systems chief executive officer.

    Baruch says real-time location and status tracking is advancing

    “Although there are companies using RFID tags or [Global Positioning System] GPS, cellular, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) devices to offer real-time tracking.”

    Typically, a cargo’s location is known from a freight status update message which is sent when it reaches a key point in the journey, for example being cleared by customs.

    These messages can be manually sent or automatically triggered. Baruch warns though that sometimes they are not sent at all. So, the industry is changing, as Baruch explains, and in November last year, Air New Zealand Cargo announced it would be rolling out a Bluetooth system worldwide with 5,500 tags and more than 100 tag readers.

    The airline’s general manager of Cargo, Rick Nelson, says: “We’re currently using this technology to monitor shipment movements, as well as for inventory management and locating any missing items.”

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    Another airline introducing Bluetooth is Silk Way West Airlines. Starting last November, Silk Way is introducing the technology for the real-time tracking of its ULDs. Silk Way expects that the use of Bluetooth, combined with the airline’s new operations centre in Amsterdam, will deliver better utilisation rates and cost efficiencies.

    “We believe the new Bluetooth-enabled ULD tracking technology will be a game-changer for us both, and for our end customers,” says Silk Way’s vice president of global operations, Emile Khasanshin, in an October 2017 announcement.

    In the United States, Delta Air Lines is looking to employ RFID with trials being undertaken last year. The airline has also employed GPS tracking in the past. The use of GPS tracking in the industry is limited to very high-value shipments, Baruch says, because of its high cost.

    In August of last year, Delta opened its Cargo Control Center in Atlanta. Now operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the centre has staff for ULD, capacity and warehouse management, trucking, re-booking, service recovery, and call centre operations.

    Another North American airline, Air Canada, has employed RFID for a while. In May 2016, Air Canada RFID provider, CargoAware, announced that Air Canada Cargo would be installing the tracking technology across its network.

    Each ULD or pallet, along with its contents, has an RFID tag. Air Canada can see online where any ULD is located and is provided with an automated ‘last known location change’ message.

    When the pallets are built, overhead smart antennas automatically detect the ULD’s contents, and when the pallets or ULDs move through the warehouse, readers at doors update their location.

    As well as antennas and readers, RFID tags can be printed on-site for the tagging process. By May 2016, the RFID systems had been employed in Montreal, Frankfurt and Boston.

    In the CargoAware announcement, Air Canada Cargo’s former vice president, Lise-Marie Turpin, said: “Tracking shipments at the piece level with this solution will provide us with gains in process efficiency. We can use that information to improve our own operations, and to provide improved service and shipment visibility to our customers.” ”

    It [ULD tracking] enables them to differentiate themselves on the customer side, to help their customers optimise their business, who in turn help their customers,” says the head of supply chain at the World Economic Forum, Wolfgang Lehmacher.

    In his view, companies are getting to a position where they can better monitor entire operations. “It’s beyond the ULDs, it’s how do I move the stuff in the warehouse and on the tarmac, and how efficiently do I load my planes.”

    New technologies are improving ULD management

    Tracking is also going to improve the experience of a cargo’s end-user. “When you order something from Amazon, you want to know where it is and when it’s going to be delivered,” explains custom ULD provider ACL Airshop’s vice president, Wes Tucker.

    “Many of the airlines today can’t provide you with that real-time information. This will allow an airline to provide that real-time information.” Visibility for the customer is also important for Air New Zealand.

    Nelson adds: “We could potentially allow our cargo customers to log in to an online platform and monitor their shipments too.” The airline began installing the readers and tags in mid- 2017 and expects to complete the roll out in 2018. The readers can read tags at up to 100 metres.

    The Bluetooth system is being provided by the software firm CORE Transport Technologies. Nelson says: “We’ve worked with CORE Transport Technologies for several years now.”

    Air New Zealand considered a range of technologies including RFID, but as Nelson explains, “found Bluetooth best met our needs in terms of ease of installation, compliance, and level of detail available to the user.”

    The readers will be located at fixed locations at all 29 airports where the airline provides cargo services. The first airport to receive the technology was Auckland, and installations are expected to be finished by the end of the first quarter.

    CORE Transport Technologies works with ACL Airshop. Of the technologies ACL could have chosen, it opted for Bluetooth because of what it saw as shortcomings in RFID. “RFID requires multiple antennas, it requires multiple readers.

    They must be installed in the proper locations. They have to be tuned,” says Tucker, adding that an RFID reader is also needed at every door in a warehouse.

    Baruch concurs: “RFID technology is still not widespread, largely due to infrastructure costs and lack of standards. For the most part, air cargo and ULD/pallet tracking is done via barcode scanning, similar to post office, courier tracking, or manual data input of ULD numbers.”

    And Lemacher sees no future in barcodes, “the barcode has difficulties and airports have different standards [for them], so you have blind spots. Barcodes are not the ideal solution.”

    The Bluetooth tag is simple, it contains the pallet or ULD number, but it can also provide temperature information. The ULD number is on a remote database and that also contains the shipment information.

    The warehouse has a fixed place reader that connects to the Internet and the remote database, the cloud, through a normal cellular network connection.

    The reader can be programmed and activated remotely, and its operation does not need any specialist knowledge. While the reader is connected to the mains electricity supply, it has a battery if there is a loss of power.

    All the doors in a warehouse can conceivably be covered by the reader although it has a maximum 100-metre range. The reader has a 32Gb storage capacity and
    the ULD number on the tag is a very small amount of data, so the reader can theoretically process a vast number of tags.

    ULDs, Jettainer cargo
    Jettainer cargo

    A reader can read 1,000 tags in 10 seconds, says Tucker. A second reader in a building will allow the location of a ULD or pallet to be detected to within 10 metres.

    By adding what is called static Bluetooth tags around the warehouse, the location can be accurate within five metres. Tucker explains that Bluetooth’s range will be extended with the technology’s fifth-generation meshing ability. Meshing allows tags to talk to one another, allowing them to become repeaters for previous tags, sending on their data to a reader.

    He also expects to see an expansion in the range of data that the Bluetooth system can transmit, beyond pallet number and temperature. “There are more sensors that can be added. They will just be driven by customer demand. We could measure telemetry or other environmental key performance indicators.”

    For environmental information, simple data loggers are used now to monitor and record key parameters, but they require manual intervention to retrieve the device and then send the data once a shipment has arrived.

    The devices used by companies offering expensive GPS tracking services also provide temperature and humidity data and can monitor light levels and shock. Baruch sees a potential difficulty with many systems in operation. “Fragmentation is a bigger obstacle to wider adoption in my opinion,” he says.

    With different companies using different methods to report a ULD’s status and various data formats for RFID tags, it is difficult for anyone company or system to support all the available tracking methods that a customer might want.

    In Baruch’s opinion, what is needed is a standard format for shipment information that would allow the data to be more readily shared between all the parties involved in the supply chain.

    Nexiot offers a technology that removes the infrastructure. “[We] believe an elegant and therefore a truly functional solution should not require the installation of additional airport IT infrastructure, readers, or personnel and training,” says Nexiot managing director, Daniel MacGregor.

    ULDs, cargo tracking: Nexiot technology
    MacGregor says Nexiot offers a technology that removes the infrastructure

    His company’s hardware has bidirectional communication which works both inside and outside the airport. According to MacGregor, the devices are zero-maintenance, and so the ownership cost is significantly optimised.

    For Lemacher, the real value of the data that could be obtained from ULD and pallet sensors will be unlocked by artificial intelligence. “I think artificial intelligence will play an increasing role in optimising the [ULD/pallet] flow.

    Once they have the data they will realise it is a lot of data and the [global] floating stock of ULDs is about 1.2 million units, so there is a lot of data and you need powerful tools to analyse it.”