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Tracking ULDs

New technologies are changing how cargo equipment is traced throughout its journey and, as Rob Coppinger finds, 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.

“Status and location tracking is still pretty basic in the air freight industry. Real-time location and 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. “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.”

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 tracing 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 Head of Supply Chain at the World Economic Forum, Wolfgang Lehmacher. In his view, companies are getting to the 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 efficient do I load my planes.” >>


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