Rapid developments in IT, AI and automation are making big differences in the cargo and logistics sectors. Air cargo has to date lagged behind the wider sector, largely due to the nature of cargo, the complex supply chains, and the high level of regulation. Changes are underway though, with better links across the industry promising a great deal.
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Further automation in the supply chain
Linking parties in the supply chain can be taken further as well. In 2018, Lufthansa Cargo chief commercial officer Alexis von Hoenbroech said he believed that up to 70% of all cargo transactions could become automated, cutting out huge amounts of manual work and speeding deliveries.
Each cargo transaction involves many different parties – including airlines, ground services, customs, cargo handlers, forwarders, storage facilities, and shipping companies. To date, the industry has been very slow at bringing all this together. There is huge potential to move away from spreadsheets, emails, and paper.
Partners can be integrated with better data connection and sharing and using the Internet of Things. Secure blockchain solutions could also be used.
There are potential wider benefits too once the supply chain is more integrated. Data collected can be used for better planning and pricing. It can also feed into other areas, such as risk analysis and sustainability planning.
Robotics and automation
It is fair to say we have seen a lot more advances in robotics and autonomous operation in other industries. Robotics and automation can aid loading and warehousing. Although, with the bespoke nature of air cargo, this is likely to remain more manual than other cargo sectors. Automation has gone a long way in traditional warehouses, and some of this will move to aviation.
Aviation has seen automated carts developed and trialed at several airports, and this will likely be adopted in cargo operations. Autonomous vehicles could have a large role to play on the ground, both at the airport and in further distribution. Frankfurt Airport is carrying out a trial in this area, under the Smart Air Cargo Trailer (SAT) research project.
There is even work underway to develop autonomous cargo flights, but regulation will likely hold back the potential of this for some time. US-based company Reliable Robotics has already carried out automated flights using an adapted Cessna aircraft.
Problems remain in air cargo
Air cargo remains a complex industry. There are many parties involved in each transaction and many different ways for companies to work together. It is, of course, also a highly regulated industry with safety at the forefront. Like many other areas of aviation, change takes time and technology needs to be proven before it is accepted.
Dominik Dieckmann, senior manager for freight and logistics at management consultancy Accenture explained this well at the 2019 Air Cargo Europe conference in Munich, saying:
“My observation when it comes to robotics and automation in this industry is that there are a lot of good things happening – we see a lot of ideation and proofs of concept coming up; but where the industry fails is industrialisation and bringing this in on a large scale.”
There are huge potential benefits from adopting more data and robotic technology in air cargo. Change will take time, and will have critical differences from other cargo and logistic areas where automation is rapidly taking over – just consider Amazon to see this in full force. Issues such as the massive delays in cargo in 2021 though will likely push more parties to consider the benefits.
CAAS, and Accenture quote: https://www.caasint.com/issue-article/next-level-cargo-handling/
Air Cargo News, and Lufthansa Cargo: https://www.aircargonews.net/technology/air-cargo-could-save-billions-of-dollars-of-costs-by-automating/