How IAG is harnessing technology in cargo

Cargo technology

IAG is using novel technological solutions to solve problems within the cargo environment. Group editor Colette Doyle travelled to Madrid and Barcelona to learn more

International Airlines Group is one company that certainly knows how to innovate: this is the fourth year, after all, that it has run its global travel accelerator programme Hangar 51 in collaboration with IAG Cargo, Iberia and Vueling (read more about the latest iteration of the industry-leading scheme overleaf).

IAG Cargo is also actively looking to innovate in other areas, as evidenced by its trial of autonomous drones to increase efficiency and reliability within an air cargo facility. Given that the company needs to conduct a mandatory bond check once a week across its three hubs at London Heathrow, Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas and Dublin airports, it was spending no fewer than 6,500 hours on average manually recording the barcodes and location data of the freight being handled. It was clear, therefore, that a more efficient and time-saving solution was called for.

Inventory management at a cargo facility is frequently “a real pain point” according to head of innovation at IAG Cargo Carly Morris, so
the operator looked for technology that could address the problem. The drones offer a suitable solution because they obviate the need for a cherry picker, can read the barcodes accurately and fit within safety parameters, as well as meeting the required frequency.

As Morris points out, “not many drone manufacturers specialise in inventory management, so it was clear the system needed to be customised with specialist intervention.” To this end, the company decided to partner with FlytBase, a drone software company based in Pune, India, funded by venture capitalists that declares its mission as being: “To help businesses automate and scale drone operations. With a hardware-agnostic platform that features edge intelligence, cloud connectivity and application programme interfaces, FlytBase is uniquely positioned to leverage cost-effective drones for indoor applications.”

Founder and CEO Nitin Gupta says the start-up makes for “a good cultural fit” with IAG Cargo’s requirements. The company devised a software platform to automate the drone’s hardware and created a suitable operating system. He describes the drones as “fully autonomous and up to the warehouse challenge”. The testing phase included a number of rigorous checks, including accuracy of airway bill scanning; recognition of empty positives; obstacle detection; and autonomous flight when it comes to crossing, landing and accessing the charging pad.

Gupta points to the “technical challenges” that his technical team encountered, referring to the weak GPS signal found indoors and the fact that navigation is difficult as there are both static and dynamic obstacles such as racking, forklifts and warehouse employees moving around.

“It wasn’t designed initially to work indoors, but with customised software we have managed to do so,” he explains.

The drone uses IoT architecture for its battery-charging and data collection activities, and relies on technology from DJI (the trade name of Dà-Jiāng Innovations, a Chinese technology company headquartered in Shenzhen, Guangdong province). The software offers integration with IAG Cargo’s warehouse management system via Cloud connectivity.

The results so far have been positive and show that autonomous operation has been achieved; the drone can successfully tackle obstacles and it has an 82 per cent accuracy when it comes to reading airway bills. The main parameters that the project focused on were accuracy, speed, scalability and reliability. FlytBase also looked at how to deal with anomalies such as freight positioned differently from normal, and very narrow aisles.

Testing of proof of concept has taken place over the last 18 months and Morris says the results “prove that airports and drones can work together”. The plan is to continue testing over the next few months
and improve the accuracy rating of 82 per cent to more than 90 per cent. IAG Cargo will also roll out the scheme to its other hubs in Heathrow and Dublin in due course.

AllRead picked for accelerator programme

Hangar 51 is a leading global travel accelerator from IAG that gives disruptors and innovators the chance to pilot their technologies at scale and be embedded in the business for 10 weeks in order to develop and test their products.

Now in its fourth year, 2019 saw IAG Cargo choosing to work with AllRead MLT, a Spanish start‑up that has developed software that simplifies and optimises data extraction processes using machine-learning technology.

The AllRead computer vision software spots, reads and accurately converts into big data any kind of text or symbols appearing in industrial processes, including serial numbers, damaged barcodes, ID codes, sensor readings, expiration dates and many more. The technology is said to be accurate even in the most challenging operational environments, such as when dust and dirt are present, or where there is movement and blur.

At IAG Cargo, AllRead is keeping track of ULD containers; this used to be done manually but was both time-consuming and prone to errors due to the nature of the manual data entry. As Carly Morris, IAG Cargo’s head of innovation notes, there was definitely room for improvement as data was not available in real time and the inventory process was siloed, with no fewer than 140 hubs needing to receive the data, adding up to tens of thousands of inventory hours.

“AllRead’s presentation highlighted how they can use machine learning to take data and turn it into actionable insights. We are committed to continually investing in innovation to improve how we deliver for our customers and we are looking forward to working with them to find out how we can use our data to improve the efficiency of our operations,” comments Morris.

With the goal of optimising the stock-taking process for ULDs, Allread intends to train its machine-learning software to recognise ULD containers and read container numbers. The company collected lots of images in order to teach the machine to recognise the information and be able to digitise it.

The start-up’s slogan is “We read what you need”, meaning that the app ignores any unnecessary information and tracks what is required. It all adds up to a “faster, fitter user experience” with fewer errors as the codes are automatically digitised. In fact, the new software aims to show 75 per cent greater efficiency against the previous metrics, with real time information and standardised data streams.

The results to date look good,
with 99 per cent accuracy in terms of container identification.

The new technology also has a positive impact on demurrage fees because it can more quickly recognise these kinds of containers, meaning that freight carriers can take faster delivery of their cargo and avoid the charges levied when a consignment exceeds its allotted time sitting at the airport terminal.

“It still needs further testing,” acknowledges Morris, adding that IAG hopes to “be able to do that as it will help us solve a big problem”, since ULD container-tracking is a major issue and the time-saving element is crucial.

“We started out working with seaports and our focus now is on the supply chain and logistics, so this is very much our target market,” says AllRead CEO and co-founder Adriaan Landman, who adds, “This is a huge opportunity for us.”

It’s hard to put an exact figure on how much time operators will save, says Landman, but the system will certainly “improve quality and customer satisfaction, as well as freeing up staff’s time to do
other tasks”.

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