Smart Air Cargo Trailer for autonomous transportation of air freight

Needs-oriented and autonomous transportation of air freight consignments between the forwarder and air freight handler – that is the objective of the Smart Air Cargo Trailer research project at Frankfurt Airport’s CargoCity Süd.

Currently, forwarders pool their export cargo for various air freight handlers at their hubs. As soon as a trailer is full or the latest acceptance time (LAT) for one of the loaded consignments is due soon, the forwarders move them to the handlers’ receiving ramps. The handlers then distribute the cargo to the relevant flights. The process works in reverse for imports. The land-based transportation procedures are not exactly smooth and there is room for improvement when it comes to efficiency: This method allows forwarders to avoid backlogs at their own warehouses. In order to be able to comply with the LATs, they send some consignments off early, risking long waiting times at the handlers’ ramps – often with the trailers not at full capacity. In turn, handlers don’t have much control over their handling sequence and simply have to accept at what time the forwarders send the trucks.

That is how import and export freight is dealt with at present.

The Smart Air Cargo Trailer (SAT) research project at Frankfurt Airport aims at optimizing this process. Within two years, newly developed “smart trailers” will operate as a cloud-based autonomous transportation system in a way that suits both, the forwarders and the handlers.

Alongside Fraport AG, the parties involved in the project include RheinMain University of Applied Sciences, Fraunhofer IML, autonomous vehicle manufacturer KAMAG, cargo handler LUG, forwarding companies Sovereign and Dachser, and logistics software provider CargoSteps. It is receiving funding from Hesse’s state program for the development of economic excellence (Landes-Offensive zur Entwicklung Wissenschaftlich-ökonomischer Exzellenz, LOEWE) within the scope of the project “Hessen ModellProjekte”.

Autonomous and efficient transportation

SAT’s lifeblood is a complex control algorithm, taking into account a variety of consignment information for individual pieces of cargo – for example, the LAT. A camera system on the trailer provides loading information. It should be able to record several packages on a pallet at the same time by reading their barcodes – even if they are partially obscured. “If the codes are completely obscured, the system should be able to verify that all packages are on the truck by comparing the actual load with the order,” explains Rachid Touzani, CEO of CargoSteps. If the trailer is full or loaded with a time-critical consignment, the system is able to independently request a towing unit thanks to the Internet of Things. The parties involved can view all of the data online via the cloud on a smartphone, tablet, or computer. Forwarders and handlers will be able to control transportation to suit their workload, for example by postponing deliveries when their ramps are at full capacity.

Schematic diagram of the Smart Air Cargo Trailer research project for needs-oriented and autonomous transportation of air freight.

For the journey to the recipient, autonomous transportation in mixed traffic, parallel operation of autonomous transportation and regular trucks and cars, is to be trialed at CargoCity Süd for the first time. “As a leading innovator in air freight, we are delighted to be supporting this project. It will sustainably improve the competitiveness of the site,” says Felix Kreutel, Head of the Cargo Division at Fraport AG. “The combination of self-scheduling systems and autonomous transportation will be essential in future if we want to make processes more efficient, extend the reach of the existing infrastructure, and combat the lack of workers.”

Text by Marion Frahm
Photo: Fraport
Graphics: Hochschule RheinMain