Innovations in air cargo driving industry’s growth

Innovations in air cargo driving industry’s growth

An autonomous electric tractor of Hactl, Photo: Hactl

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The air cargo industry, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), is expected to experience a growth of 4.5% in 2024. Despite a booming economy and e-commerce, the air cargo industry in 2024 needs innovation to handle the surge. New tech can streamline operations and make things cheaper, particularly by automating tasks. This will be vital to stay competitive in an ever-changing global market.

The air cargo industry has long been a driving force behind the global movement of goods, connecting businesses and consumers across continents with unparalleled speed and efficiency. However, as we navigate the ever-changing landscape of global trade and logistics, the sector finds itself at a pivotal moment, embracing a wave of innovative technologies and solutions that are redefining the way cargo is handled, transported, and delivered. With e-commerce booming and consumers craving ever-faster deliveries, the need for efficient and speedy air transport has never been greater.

“Trade and cargo are dependent on supply and demand in many sectors, so it is important that modern cargo ecosystems provide a diverse offering of services. Our vision is to be one of the world’s most customer-centric air cargo brands in the world. Cathay Cargo's status as the world’s best – led by its “We Know How” mantra and philosophy. We are moving towards achieving our vision of becoming one of the world’s greatest service brands by focusing on our customers, our people and the Hong Kong international aviation hub, and continuously investing in them,’’ says Rajesh Menon, Regional Head of Cargo – South Asia, Middle East, and Africa at Cathay Cargo.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) reported strong growth in the global air cargo market for April 2024. Demand increased by 11.1% compared to April 2023, marking the fifth consecutive month of double-digit growth. IATA's Director General, Willie Walsh, stated, "Air cargo demand started Q2 with a solid 11.1% increase," highlighting the sector's strong performance despite economic uncertainties.

This shows that the air cargo market is experiencing strong growth, with a significant increase in demand for air freight services. To meet that demand, innovation in the industry is a must. In 2024, several innovative developments are reshaping the way cargo is handled, transported, and tracked. From sustainable aviation fuels to cutting-edge cargo tracking systems and advanced robotics, the industry is leaving no stone unturned in its quest to stay ahead of the curve.

“The aviation and cargo industry has gone through a lot of turning points to enhance the services it provides with the help of automation.”
Rajesh Menon, Cathay Cargo

Companies are also diversifying their supply chains to mitigate risks, leading to a greater reliance on air cargo's speed and reliability. To meet this growing demand, airlines are strategically increasing capacity. The rebounding passenger air travel sector is bringing back belly cargo capacity, supplementing the existing freighter network. This dual approach ensures airlines can cater to diverse shipment needs and optimise their operations.

Fueling a sustainable future

Sustainability is a top priority for the air cargo industry. Airlines are investing heavily in fuel-efficient aircraft. Boeing's 777-8F and Airbus' A350 freighter are prime examples, boasting significant fuel burn reductions compared to their predecessors. These advancements translate to lower carbon emissions, minimising the industry's environmental impact. IATA and the aviation industry have set a target to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Companies like Airbus are also developing the world's first hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft by 2035 through its ZEROe project. Not only aircraft manufacturers and airlines, but many startups in the air cargo industry are also focusing on sustainability.

Speedcargo Technologies, a Singapore-based deep-tech startup, is transforming air cargo with innovative solutions powered by artificial intelligence and robotics.

“Sustainability has rightly been on the forefront of efforts in the industry, and we incorporate it into our operations in ways that make a real impact. We are a software-first solution where our highly-efficient algorithms run on basic hardware without energy-expensive GPUs,’’ says Dr Suraj Nair, Founder and Chief Technology Officer at Speedcargo Technologies.

“We try to opt for hardware components integral to our solutions that are off the shelf, like in the case of our sensors for Cargo Eye. We also try to limit our travel to the very essentials, and barring the installation locally in Singapore, all our deployments of Cargo Eye have been done remotely. We would apply the same values to our automation solution.”

Speedcargo Technologies' Dr. Suraj Nair highlights a comprehensive approach to sustainability, assessing all business areas. This aligns with Menzies Aviation's Beau Paine, who emphasises the significant impact of ground support equipment (GSE) on emissions.

“All areas of our business are assessed in light of our sustainability strategy and goals, it remains a fact that the vast majority of emissions for all aviation logistics businesses comes from GSE. Wherever possible, we’re investing in electric GSE and we’re on track to reach our goal of 25% by 2025,” says Beau Paine, Global Head of Cargo & SVP Cargo OSEA at Menzies Aviation.

“We’re also investing in more recycled materials such as biodegradable cargo wraps and reviewing the end-of-life qualities to ensure we’re also recycling more. There has been lots of progress in this area, with additional strides being made to improve building efficiencies, such as electric use and air quality.”

Swissport has also launched new electric vehicles at its facilities at the Basel and Geneva airports and it aims to achieve 55 per cent electric vehicles in its global fleet by 2032, targeting a 42 per cent reduction in CO2 from operations.

Automating for efficiency

Automation and robotics are playing an increasingly significant role in air cargo operations, enhancing efficiency, reducing human error, and improving safety. “We are now moving into full robotics and we are beginning real, game-changing projects such as our new autonomous electric tractors which are towing cargo dollies on the ramp. We see robotics as one solution to the constant challenge of recruitment in a full-employment economy, and will look at other applications such as driverless forklifts in the warehouse, and also the ‘Holy Grail’ of automated pallet building which has not yet been adequately addressed in the industry, but could be a massive step forward for the whole industry,” says Wilson Kwong, Chief Executive of Hactl, one of the leading air cargo terminal operators in the world located at Hong Kong.

“When it comes to automation, industrial robots are highly energy efficient machines, and they can work 24X7, 365 days for decades without requiring major maintenance.”
Dr Suraj Nair, Speedcargo Technologies

“While we have an established proof of concept (POC) with our palletizing robot, we understand that every station will have its unique set of requirements and constraints. Which is why, much like our digitisation and optimisation solutions, our automation solution, too, is modular and scalable, so that ground handlers can choose the degree of automation that would be appropriate for them. The robots are quite versatile, too,’’ says Dr Nair of Speedcargo.

“Automating handling in the air cargo industry is challenging as cargo comes in all sizes, shapes and weights. It is also a high payload environment, where you may have a shipment that is 10 kilos or up to two tonnes. When you have that range to handle, it becomes difficult to automate that process with a standardised mechanism, like the automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) and conveyor systems,” he adds.

“There are two types of autonomous vehicles which we are using in our operations. At Heathrow Airport in London, we introduced Dexory’s autonomous robot Mimi to run daily inventory checks in our warehouse. The daily checks have saved colleagues 20 hours’ each week and a further three hours’ each day that used to be spent on locating cargo,” says Paine of Menzies Aviation.

Menzies Aviation's cargo robot Mimi, Photo: Menzies Aviation

“We’re also looking at autonomous forklifts to take pallets to the breakdown and build up areas which will further improve efficiency. Increasingly, autonomous vehicles are planning a significant role in ground handling operations, and as a result, we understand the importance of designing warehouses that will facilitate automated guided vehicle (AGV) integration to support such operations.”

Protecting temperature-sensitive cargo

The transportation of temperature-sensitive cargo, such as pharmaceuticals, perishable goods, and certain types of electronics, requires specialised cold chain solutions to ensure the integrity and quality of these shipments throughout the entire supply chain. The air cargo industry is implementing innovative approaches to address this crucial challenge.

“Wherever possible, we’re investing in electric GSE and we’re on track to reach our goal of 25% by 2025.”
Beau Paine, Menzies Aviation

One notable development is the use of advanced temperature monitoring and control systems. These systems can continuously monitor and adjust the temperature within cargo containers, ensuring that the desired temperature range is maintained throughout the journey.

“We opened a new 1,250sqm purpose-built Pharma Handling Centre at the Cathay Cargo Terminal, and we became the first carrier (Cathay Cargo) and first cargo terminal operator (Cathay Pacific Services Ltd) to have cargo shipments accepted in Dongguan Logistics Park and transported to Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) by ship for outbound airfreight. Further, we have established our own upstream bonded facility – Cathay Cargo Terminal Dongguan – located at the Bestar Logistics Centre in Dongguan,” says Menon of Cathay Cargo.

“The cool chain complex is our latest step to enhance our capabilities in temperature-controlled handling. It provides a centralised resource that can cater for every commodity in its multiple temperature zones; it enables us to perform all handling functions in a controlled environment; it provides much more capacity, and is the largest on-airport facility of its kind in Hong Kong; and it uniquely enables us to deal with hazardous cargo such as bio-sciences shipments in a temperature-controlled and secure environment. We already hold all relevant certifications for all temperature-controlled cargo, and our facilities now take us well beyond the mandated standards,” says Kwong of Hactl.

Turkish Cargo has recently received the LEED V4.1 Operations Certification for its SMARTIST cargo facility at Istanbul Airport. At SMARTIST, cargo is stored and transferred using the computer-controlled Automated Storage and Retrieval System (ASRS), eliminating the need for an operator or forklift. Additionally, ULD storage processes are automated through the ULD Storage System.

Enabling data-driven operations and enhancing air cargo security

In today's data-driven world, the air cargo industry is embracing digital technologies to streamline operations, enhance visibility, and facilitate seamless information exchange among stakeholders.

“Utilising data is enabling us to improve accuracy and availability across our business and is fundamental to our ability to adapt and be agile. By the end of 2024, every Menzies location will be able to accurately and securely share data on the Validaide platform,’’ says Paine of Menzies Aviation.

Another significant innovation is the adoption of Pre-Loading Advance Cargo Information (PLACI) standards, which aim to improve air cargo security and efficiency through advanced data sharing.

“We are anticipating future trends and will work with shippers to see how we could further facilitate their originating/arriving and transit shipments, using Hong Kong International Airport as a hub.”
Wilson Kwong, Hactl

The primary objective of PLACI is to enable customs officials to conduct risk assessments on the pre-loading data, identifying potential security threats associated with specific shipments and allowing for targeted screening and inspections. By implementing PLACI, the air cargo industry addresses challenges such as manual data entry, and lengthy customs clearance processes, and enhances overall supply chain security.

“PLACI is at the crossroads between customs and aviation security, as both civil aviation and customs are usually involved in the implementation. The PLACI requirements aim at undertaking risk assessment on data submitted in advance. The focus now is on high-quality data, with the information provided not only at the master but also at the house (=item) level. Moreover, risk assessment before loading pushes the industry to adopt new procedures (for timely reaction to risk assessment outcomes), upgrade their IT systems and take steps (including with agents/customers) to ensure that high-quality, precise data is provided in time to customs,” highlights Christian Piaget, Head, Cargo Border Management & Claims at International Air Transport Association (IATA).

"Many customs authorities conduct risk assessments on data before goods arrive, speeding up customs clearance by isolating suspicious cargo immediately. Over 70 countries use these pre-arrival programmes. In contrast, PLACI involves risk assessment by destination customs before loading, adding an extra security layer. This requires coordination between customs and civil aviation authorities, especially if a bomb is detected, making international cooperation crucial," Piaget adds.

Recently, Etihad Cargo has ensured its readiness for the UAE's PLACI regulations. This guarantees uninterrupted shipments for both partners and customers.

Collaboration fuels greater innovation potential

As the air cargo industry evolves, collaboration among stakeholders drives innovation. By forming partnerships and sharing information, companies use collective expertise to solve the industry's biggest challenges.

“Cathay Cargo has worked with Envirotainer to make the shipment-status data provided by its Releye, RLP and RAP active containers available to its customers on the Cathay Cargo website via an API (application programming interface) connection, bringing more transparency to Cathay Pharma shipments,” states Menon of Cathay Cargo.

Similarly, Menzies' partnership with Wipro to develop the Menzies Aviation Cargo Handling (MACH) cargo management system is helping them transform operations across their global network.

“PLACI requirements are recent advance cargo information requirements focused on improved data-driven security processes adapted to global business models.”
Christian Piaget, IATA

Saudia Cargo, Worldwide Flight Services (WFS) and Alibaba's logistics arm Cainiao have officially launched their collaboration at Cainiao’s Liege eHub in Liege Airport, Belgium, and aims to create a business model for future e-commerce logistics gateways at global airports. The collaboration has also bolstered the logistics capacity of the eHub, with three temperature-controlled facilities jointly designed by the three parties.

Overall, the air cargo industry's relentless pursuit of innovation is reshaping the sector's future. From sustainable solutions and automation to data-driven operations and enhanced security, groundbreaking developments are optimising efficiency and minimising environmental impact. Collaborative efforts foster pioneering advancements that tackle pressing challenges. As demand continues to grow, there will be a need for companies to adapt new innovations and invest in new innovations to keep pace.

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