Airline automates air cargo tracking via BLE

Cal Cargo Airlines has deployed a Descartes solution that provides data on the locations and conditions of palletized or containerized cargo moving through a global network of BLE gateways.

Cal Cargo Airlines deployed a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)-based solution to manage its fleet of pallets and containers, known as Unit Load Devices (ULDs). The system provides visibility into the locations of ULDs, as well as whose custody they are at any given time, while tracking movement on global transportation lanes.

DescartesThe CORE ULD tracking system provides automatic data to air cargo companies like Cal Cargo, allowing them to not only reduce the manual labor required for tracking ULDs, but also help automate demurrage processes to ensure that assets are returned quickly and so used to their capacity, according to Frank Hung, vice president of sales and marketing for Descartes.

A Cal Cargo Airlines plane

The CORE ULD tracking solution consists of a BLE connectivity network that Descartes already provides to airports around the world, as well as BLE beacons attached to pallets and containers, and a cloud-based service to provide the necessary movement data. and, in some cases, freight terms based on BLE tag readings. With the use of BLE tags and readers, Hung explains, air cargo passes through key points in the supply chain and is automatically identified, and that information is then updated and can be shared.

Cal Cargo Airlines operates charter flights and services to transport both non-standard cargo and general cargo worldwide. It provides reusable pallets and containers that transport products to their final destinations before they are returned. The airline transports approximately 100,000 tons of cargo per year and its service is managed by a transport and logistics company Challenge group.

Over the past few years, Hung says, airlines have been experimenting with various technologies to solve the problem of tracking pallets and palletized goods, and those technologies have included barcodes and RFID. “We talked to the airlines,” he says, “and then ultimately we came up with solutions using Bluetooth that are fully automatic, without the need for manual scanning.”

The pandemic opens the way to new challenges for air cargo

Like other air cargo providers, Cal Cargo Airlines has recently been challenged by disruptions caused by the pandemic. Supply chain management has become a very difficult task overall, according to Yossi Shoukroun, CEO of Challenge Group. One of the main hurdles, he says, has been the inability to manage cargo with strictly manual labor, “which, as we know, was one of the biggest resources affected by COVID-19.” For this reason, he adds, “we were driven to develop a technology solution that would support our business continuity plan.”

Frank Hung

Frank Hung

Prior to implementing Descartes’ solution, the airline managed its ULDs through manual employee efforts, which included regular communication and cross-validation. “In many cases,” says Shoukroun, “our team had to perform additional ULD inventory checks due to inventory discrepancies, which required additional time, resources, and effort.” With the system in place, the Challenge Group network is supported by BLE readers, making goods visible as they move through the network as part of a supply chain.

Typically, BLE tags are attached to ULDs, pallets, ground handling equipment, or shipments. The beacons then operate in one of two modes. In beacon mode, they would transmit data about assets or shipments to an available BLE reader, to send it to the cloud. Alternatively, they could be in passive mode, meaning the reader would wake them up, in which case they would transmit their data. Readers are installed at airports, ground handling agent (GHA) facilities, shipping endpoints or anywhere else along the air cargo supply chain where customers of Descartes might want to collect data.

By affixing BLE tags to its fleet of ULD assets, Cal Cargo Airlines will gain visibility into the location and status of ULDs as they move through airports, GHA facilities, and Cal Cargo Airlines warehouses or Challenge Group where Descartes CORE BLE readers are installed. . Challenge Group implemented the Descartes solution at the end of 2021, explains Shoukroun, noting, “We have installed CORE BLE readers in our network of online and offline warehouses.” So far, the beacons have been installed in the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The next phase, he says, will be to install the readers in warehouses in China.

As freight moves from origin to destination, it passes readers at warehouses and airports. Data is captured by these beacons and transmitted to cloud-based software, and each beacon uses a SIM card to provide cellular transmission of this information to the server. The tags remain inactive until they detect a reader, at which time they begin transmitting data to the reader. The software can manage this data, as well as identify discrepancies such as missing or misplaced ULDs.

Benefit from the visibility of ULDs in transit

Yossi Choukroun

Yossi Choukroun

“The main benefits of using the Descartes CORE system are the real-time visibility of ULD assets,” says Shoukroun, as well as the ability to generate rapid inventory management validation and locate missing goods. Since the system went live, he reports, CORE readers have successfully identified ULDs in incorrect locations, saving the cost of workers searching for these items, while ensuring they reach their destination on time. “The technology allows us to locate ULDs internally for loading or externally, in the event of misrouting. All of these benefits save valuable labor time by eliminating unnecessary manual work to manage ULD inventories. “

Currently, there are approximately one million ULDs in service worldwide, according to IATA. Descartes’ cloud-based software delivers relevant data to its customers anywhere and from any device, Hung says. The solution is relatively easy and quick to deploy, he adds, because it leverages Descartes’ existing network of BLE gateways. “We can call ourselves the largest IoT network in the air cargo industry,” says Hung. “We have over 250 airports enabled with our readers, and we have over 1,200 locations.” The network grows as new customers deploy the system.

Typically, Descartes works with a specific freight carrier to further develop the gateway network based on the movement of their freight. “We can work together to put a drive” somewhere that isn’t already part of the network, Hung says. Companies used the data provided, he says, to reduce the time workers had to walk or drive around a location looking for particular pallets, such as in airport storage areas.

Temperature sensors and other measurements

Hung says some companies are now collecting sensor data related to the conditions cargo is exposed to throughout transportation. “When we first started offering our solution,” he recalls, “location tracking was the focus. Everyone starts with taking a small step.” However, some users also need to know the temperature. Last year, the company therefore developed a new tag capable of detecting temperature, humidity, light and movement.

Users can monitor if cargo is getting too hot or too cold, if it may have been exposed to liquids, or if containers have been opened, based on light exposure. This type of data can be an added value for the customers of the freight company. For example, Cathay Pacific Cargo offers a service known as Ultra Track so that customers who ship perishable goods, such as pharmaceuticals, can view real-time data regarding the locations and temperatures of those items.

Descartes offers its solution on a software-as-a-service subscription basis, with companies paying fees to use and reuse tags and access associated data, as well as to share that information with customers. By capturing data about ULD locations, Cal Cargo Airlines and other companies can properly alert or bill customers who do not return ULDs after transit is complete.

Key points to remember:

  • The global BLE network provides freight forwarders with a real-time view of the pallets, containers and goods they transport for customers.
  • Location and sensor data can be used to identify problems, automatically locate freight, and prompt customers to return empty ULDs.

Exhibitors at LIVE RFID Diary! 2022 will offer air cargo tagging and tracking solutions. To learn more, visit the event website.