Why aircraft containers are the next big automation challenge

The Robot Report

aircraft containers

Earlier this month, it was announced that – based on preliminary cargo numbers from 2020 – the Memphis International Airport would become the top cargo airport in the world, bypassing Hong Kong. Memphis is the headquarter city for FedEx Express and the main hub in its worldwide network. It has been reported [by Air Cargo World and Cargo Facts] that the Memphis airport handled 4.61 million metric tons of cargo in 2020, fueled primarily by the boom in e-commerce. But how do all those e-commerce packages move in and out of the Memphis airport? By airplane of course; but more specifically, by aircraft containers best known in the industry as Unit Load Devices (ULDs).

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), there are over 900,000 ULDs in service around the world. ULDs are used by both passenger and cargo airlines to move packages, luggage, and other sorts of cargo. ULDs allow for a lot of product to be loaded into a single unit that can then move on and off an aircraft quickly and on to its next destination. Also, since ULDs are regulated by the airline industry for standardization purposes, many ULDs can come off one aircraft type and be loaded directly onto a completely different aircraft type without offloading the ULD. This means that a container could be transferred from one airline directly to another airline also without being emptied.

However, offloading a ULD can be a labor-intensive activity. Many of us have stood at the airport luggage carousel waiting on our bags. This is because of the time it takes the baggage handlers to unload the ULD. When it comes to luggage, a ULD may hold a few dozen pieces. You can just imagine how long it will take to unload a ULD at FedEx, full of many more individual packages.

Not surprisingly, finding an automated solution for ULD unload is appearing on many airline executives’ wish lists in 2021. Not only are there more and more ULDs to unload, but it is becoming harder and harder to find people to do the task of unloading them.

Challenges of automating unloading ULDs

aircraft containers

What are some of the challenges when it comes to having automation or robots unloading ULDs? Here are five key factors to consider if you want to build a solution to beat this task:

1. Product Diversity: Any solution will need to be able to deal with many different products to unload, not only from ULD to ULD – but within the ULD itself. When a ULD is opened, it may be full of standard boxes; it may be boxes and polymorphic bags; or it could be nothing but rugs. Anything that can be purchased online could be in that ULD. How does your solution deal with that level of package diversity?

2. ULD Shape and Sizes: Even though there are only a few dozen ULD types in the world (since they need to fit into the shape of an aircraft), they are not perfect cubes. They have different angles and door openings. Your solution will need to reach around corners and angled surfaces.

3. Tight Loads: Cargo handlers are trained to pack ULDs full and tight. Every square inch of a ULD needs to be used. In addition, to prevent loads from shifting during flight, loaders make sure the load is tightly packed. How will your solution get that first piece out of the ULD without damaging it in the process?

4. Speed Matters: The unloading of packages is the first step in the sort process. It sets the speed of everything downstream, so unload needs to be done quickly. For the larger ULDs, there may be two or more team members working to unload it quickly. Any solution will need to be similar in speed to the current method.

5. ULDs Need To Be Airworthy: ULDs are loaded on to aircraft and become part of the aircraft during flight. They need to be airworthy at all times. Any solution will need to ensure it does not damage the ULD itself during the package unload process. Over the years, the airline industry has worked very hard to drop the weight of the ULD, because that is additional weight going onto the aircraft, which means many ULDs are now made of lighter weight materials.

As stated earlier, ULDs are used by the entire airline industry. Therefore, any ULD unload solution would be attractive to numerous clients. Given the current growth rate for e-commerce, many more shipments will be taking a journey by aircraft and therefore, in ULDs, in the years ahead. This combination will yield a growing market for any solution that is successful.

The next question is simple: Who is going to tackle this problem for the airline industry and solve it?

Aaron Prather FedEx

About the author

With nearly 25 years at FedEx, Aaron Prather has developed and deployed numerous technology applications across the FedEx enterprise. From Hub operations in Memphis, Indianapolis, and Oakland, to Courier Operations around the world, he has worked in every corner of FedEx’s day-to-day operations.

In his current role as Senior Advisor, Technology Planning & Research, Prather leads efforts to find and deploy new technologies into FedEx operations, including robotics and automation. He sits on the company’s Operations Technology Council which coordinates efforts across all of the FedEx companies.

Outside of FedEx, Prather participates in developing robot standards at the RIA and UL. Through the FedEx Institute of Technology at the University of Memphis, he works with universities and colleges in the development of educational programs for the next generation of technologists in logistics. Prather received an MBA from Christian Brothers University and holds a BS from University of Memphis in Geographic Information Science and Cartography.

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