Every day of the year hundreds of thousands of ULD move around the world, delivering baggage and cargo effectively to their destinations. We cannot imagine air cargo without ULD. Yet, sad to say the methods used to control the whereabouts of ULD remain little unchanged since the first PANAM flight in early 1970. How many of us perform our daily jobs using 1970’s technology and processes, how many of us type letters on a typewriter and put it in the post, how many of us use a fixed dial up phone, how many of us sit at a Telex machine and send off Type B SITA messages? Yet when it comes to ULD management the industry is stuck in a time warp, trying to make systems developed 40+ years ago work in today’s world, which they don’t, at least not very well.
Could there finally be some light on the horizon? It would seem so, as by good fortune we have two developments that happen to intersect, creating an opportunity for ULD management to move in the modern age.
The first of these is the advent of Bluetooth Low Energy. General information on BLE can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bluetooth_Low_Energy, in simple terms BLE can deliver what RFID could not and this can be the breakthrough:
Reason 1. BLE is essentially “consumer electronics”, which means that it has a far lower cost base and also a far greater availability of hardware solutions. Of course some “customization” is required to make BLE operate successfully in a cargo/ULD environment but the availability of BLE “ solutions” makes this far easier than with RFID
Reason 2. RFID comes in 2 versions, active and passive. While “Active” has a greater range, there has always been an issue with regard to interference with aircraft systems and gaining approval to have such devices loaded on an aircraft. “Passive” RFID does not have this problem but has a much shorter range. BLE on the other hand can be configured to only “power up” when it is contacted by a reader, meaning that it’s a totally passive device in absence of a reader and as the positioning of readers will never be near any aircraft once they are away from the ramp area this risk is eliminated
Reason 3. BLE can operate effectively over a range of about 100 m radius, meaning that it is highly effective at covering both cargo terminal floor and ramp areas, ULD storage areas and truck docks/gates using a very small number of scanners. Furthermore, setting up a scanner is no more complicated than plugging the unit into a mains power supply, all functions are managed remotely. There is no cost to the terminal.
Reason 4. Infrastructure cost. RFID scanners are costly and also have a limited range. Furthermore, with very limited industry wide acceptance of RFID the installation of scanners in both home and remote cargo terminals required extensive expenditure and management. BLE on the other hand is a very simple device, scanning a radius of about 100 m, requiring only a main power supply, its data is transmitted via a SIM card to a central data system.
Reason 5. Global coverage. There has never been a global approach to ULD identification by RFID. Some airlines have equipped some cargo terminals with readers and have “RFID tagged” their ULD, ending up with very limited coverage. With BLE any terminal having a reader installed will connect with any BLE enabled ULD, regardless of the owner and transmit the data to the central data processor and in turn to the airline owning the ULD.
It would appear that BLE is a “solution” to a very clear “need”, what more is necessary? ULD CARE has no commercial interest in this outcome and it is the choice of individual airlines as to whether they tag their ULD using BLE. But as with fax machines and mobile phones there is a need for a certain “snowball effect”, mobile phones became popular, even indispensable, when the mast coverage meant your phone was always useable, and faxes only became really popular when other people had them to receive your fax ! For BLE ULD tagging to take off there is a need for the ground based facilities to agree to having the readers in their facilities. No bigger than a home wireless router and only needing a standard 110/240V mains power socket the readers communicate through the local mobile phone network, transmitting tiny packets of data to a central processor each time a ULD is “read”. The number of readers will vary according to the size and configuration of the facility, but as they are provided free by the system operator and are “plug and play”, there is no significance to the ground service provider whether they have 1 or 10 such readers.
Providing airlines with accurate and timely information of ULD in their facilities is a requirement for service providers (AHM 423), and every year tens of thousands of hours must be spent carrying out this activity manually, what other industry relies on such a legacy method to maintain inventory values, especially as its often inaccurate anyway. Furthermore in todays extended supply chain ULD are frequently off airport, in forwarder or shipper facilities and typically not visible to the airline, BLE ULD tagging has the opportunity to dramatically change this situation, putting airline ULD controllers back in control of their ULD!
The IATA ULD Control Receipt was developed countless years ago, a pen and paper based process to capture any transfer of a ULD between two airlines. Today, while airline to airline transfer (interlining) still exists the much larger volume of ULD transfers do not directly involve the airline, but are between ground service providers and freight forwarders. This has led to the use of a variety of “ad hoc” solutions, some based on the traditional UCR, some on other documents, some manual and some computer based.
Having been designed for airline to airline transfers the UCR was based on the long-established airline coding system, e.g. LHR FF YY transferring to LHR JQ ZZ, this worked well as everyone had a code and everyone know what each code signified. However, it gets much harder when the parties may not be part of the airline system, and may have widely varying address formats. About 4 years ago ULD CARE established a project to define a new format for the UCR, which once completed and ratified by IATA has then enabled the creation of the XML messaging standard for a UCR message. For those not fully up to speed with IT terminology XML is the messaging standard adopted by IATA and used to support a portfolio of industry messages (read more on IATA’s XML initiatives at http://www.iata.org/publications/store/Pages/load-control-xml-messaging-toolkit.aspx).
The next step here is for the various platform providers, on whose systems airlines cargo functions including ULD are managed, to carry out the necessary upgrades to their systems, there are encouraging signs that this is already happening. Once this is completed, and by the way ULD CARE is modifying its IULDUG system to accept such messages, then the door is open for ULD transfer messaging to move from the 1970’s into today’s world !!!!
The intersection of these 2 developments, BLE ULD tagging and X-UCR messaging can, between them, deliver a seismic shift in ULD management processes, leading to greater efficiency and safety.