Next-gen ULDs come of age

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It has been 6O years since standardised pallets and containers were first introduced to optimise the loading and unloading of air freight. Over these years, significant innovations in the Unit Load Device (ULD) space have led to more fuel-efficient, eco-friendly and, most of all, smart devices that may eventually talk to each other and with aircraft.

Surya Kannoth

For all airlines, operating ULDs is an essential part of day-to-day operations. Hence, ensuring that every flight has the right type of ULD at the right place at the right time is of utmost importance. Today, around 900,000 ULDs with a replacement value of around $1 billion support the world’s global cargo operations around the clock. 

With the rise of demand for safe and intact delivery of cargoes requiring compliance with special conditions and environment, container and pallet management solution providers are putting their thinking caps on to implement better and smarter ULDs that help with next-generation tracking. 

Industry experts are looking at smart containers offering real solutions for the most difficult and challenging cargo types such as live animals and pharmaceutical products. ULDs that can sense and report temperature changes, humidity, damage, or animals in distress could all prevent damaged or lost property.

Unilode, the leading ULD management company and recipient of the IATA Air Cargo Innovation Award of 2019 during the 13th World Cargo Symposium in Singapore, for instance, has begun equipping its ULDs with digital tags based on Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology. BLE tags are fully embedded in the structure of the ULDs and their data can be captured automatically through a global interoperable reader infrastructure. The BLE programmeis a giant leap in the drive for a digital transformation of ULD management solutions.

Next-gen ULDs come of age

Unilode’s concept showed how it will allow customers to use the ULD as a proxy for air cargo located inside the ULD to track location and transmit status updates on the temperature, light, shock exposure and humidity.  

Drawing parallels between the next-generation ULDs with that of the new Tesla, Unilode’s CEO Benoit Dumont said, “The next generation of ULDs is a bit like the new Tesla with autonomous driving. So you can imagine a ULD in 10years' time saying I'm ULD ‘X’ and I belong to ‘Y’ and I am on my way to Singapore. I am carrying 500 iPads and all have been cleared or that I have just arrived at a destination waiting to be unloaded and waiting for my new assignment. You can imagine a lot of this information being run autonomous where everytime a container will go past a checkpoint, information will be recorded. That gives you an opportunity in terms of what you want to do with that information. How do you want to share it - do you want to put it onto a ledger and use blockchain to record that information because the factory should have the entire history of the ULD from its birth, production till the time you scrap it.” 

Another ULD service provider that has been working on all technological areas such as BLE and other smart devices is Jettainer. Martin Kraemer, head of marketing and PR, Jettainer believes that technology will be a differentiating factor for the business model of ULDs. “After a decade of strong focus on material (for example light weight), technology will be the most significant driver of the ULD business. Besides, it will change ULD management in terms of linking various players of the logistics chain together to raise efficiency and transparency.”

“At Jettainer, we are already working on intelligent ULD management systems. We already have incorporated Artificial Intelligence in the Jettainer steering system. It is the only AI in ULD management and steering and helps to further increase ULD fleet efficiency for our clients.”

The inclusion of such technologies is expected to make the ULD much smarter. BlueTooth BLE technology is now being incorporated into ULDs, containers and pallets. There is the clear need to use BLE technology for a variety of reasons, for example, tracking and tracing of units or ground handling features at the airline side. The advantages of BLE are manifold at both ULD management and airline side. Tags attached to cargo and baggage can interact with the BLE sensor and assist in better data quality. Soon, BLE and other systems will become more and more integrated, making the entire air freight and cargo transportation chain more efficient and transparent.

Jettainer recently joined forces with CORE Transport Technologies in order to push this field forward. Customers can now get BLE equipped units if they wish. CORE Transport’s Bluetooth tags, which can be added to ULDs without any additional certifications, are automatically recognized by receptors at airports, making manual scanning processes unnecessary. The tech company’s tracking solution, COREInsight, provides live tracking for both the vessels and their contents by purchase order, recording data, such as temperature, GPS location, direction of travel, vehicle speed, and outside and inside temperature.

Besides, Jettainer is working on a ULD Black Box. It is currently being tested as a device that can measure and register damages. This will lead to a further increase in the efficiency of ULD fleets.  

ACL Airshop is also improving the integration of Bluetooth tags at the point of ULD manufacture. It is assisting its customers by expanding the network of reader devices at all appropriate sites. ACL Airshop has also been beefing up its operations centres in Amsterdam, New York JFK, and Hong Kong. “And all the while as we infuse better technologies into our offering, we will continue to invest millions annually in expanding our own ULD fleet, and growing our network of service stations at major global airports. ACL Airshop is developing hardware, software and intelligence. By using more artificial intelligence the customer is able to have more predictability of everything which is happening in and around their ULD management. As importantly, we will always preserve our speedy customer service reputation, which is driven by our people. We measure customer responsiveness in minutes and hours, not days or weeks,” adds Steve Townes. 

Next-gen ULDs come of age

With the e-commerce market now offering a piece of the pie to the rest of the cargo market, customers typically expect full transparency with their order all along the supply chain, and a ‘Smart ULD’ infrastructure/network has the potential to provide that.  The non-integrator airlines now have the ability to compete for e-commerce shipments while answering the customer’s burning question, ‘Where’s my stuff?’E-commerce drives the need to innovate, and that puts pressure on ULD manufacturers to provide accurate information to its customers.

“Customers want to feel confident that their package is on its way and will arrive in good condition at a specified time. Customers expect high level e-services and they expect the same level of tech in and on a ULD as they have on their smartphone. The smarter your phone, the smarter they expect the peripherals to be. When Bluetooth tags are tied integrally in the system to both the ULD serial number as well as the Airway Bill, that’s the real game-changing pivot point,” feels Kraemer.

“There are ever-changing, developing and competing technologies in the real-time track and trace sector.  Customers want to know that the solution they choose will not be left behind in 24 months because someone else offers a ‘better mouse trap’.  This is the nature of technology.  The real challenge is offering a solution to the customer that is both innovative and accommodating. The real time information demand from customers is the #1 technical challenge, and the business opportunity,” explains ACL Airshop’s CEO Steve Townes.

Meanwhile, among other innovations in the ULD space, Dutch aviation engineering and manufacturing company VRR has come up with a new inflatable AKE container (branded Air5), which is the first-ever inflatable Unit Load Device (ULD) on the market.

The inflatable container weighs approximately 68kg (150 lbs), folds out automatically and can be stacked five high on the lower deck of a regular widebody aircraft.

This makes it an easy and cost-effective ULD to return, store or relocate, said Geert van Riemsdijk, VRR's managing director, adding Air5 is extremely resilient and no concessions have been made with regard to the structure’s weight, robustness, strength or safety. VRR expects to have the final certified version available by Q1 2020 and to start series production later the same year.

The challenge now for the industry is the proliferation of various products. As new specifications need to be catered to, ULD makers are now looking at building containers to suit the requirements of airlines and ULD service providers. “We are now trying to find ways to offer different containers with different types of panels for different conditions to our customers; say for example, rough terrains, where we would need a bit heavier than light weight panels but on the same frame, so that you have 80-90 percent similar parts. That is something that we have been working on with our OEM partners. This is innovative because you can tailor your ULD requirement to the type of usage and the type of airline in various parts of the world,” said Dumont.

“Over the years, airlines have outsourced a lot of their knowledge to ground handlers and to some of the OEMs so the airlines very rarely have a number of in-house engineers that are developing this product. So this is an opportunity for Unilode to start to gather all this information with our airline partners and channel that into the manufacturing area of our OEM partners. There are some exciting developments in the offing,” he revealed.

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