Second Aviation Challenge from CAAS explores solutions for automating build-up and breakdown of cargo pallets and containers
On November 23, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) announced the winners of its second Aviation Challenge. A team led by Singapore Technologies Dynamics Pte Ltd (ST Dynamics), in partnership with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), won the Challenge, for its prototype that will help boost productivity in the cargo handling process. ST Dynamics is the Advanced Engineering Center of ST Engineering, while IAI is Israel’s largest aerospace and Defense Company.
Launched in 2014, the objective of this Aviation Challenge was to develop solutions to automate key segments of the cargo handling process to reduce the physical strain on cargo handlers and improve productivity. Currently, the process of consolidating cargo into larger pallets and containers for transport in aircraft, and the reverse process of taking apart cargo from these pallets and containers, are labour-intensive and time-consuming. An estimated 40% of manpower deployed for cargo handling are involved in this build-up and breakdown process. It is also physically-demanding, as cargo handlers have to manually carry the cargo shipments during the build-up and breakdown process, and the pallets can be built up to three metres in height.
The first Aviation Challenge sought to reduce the physical strain of baggage handling on workers, caused by labour-intensive tasks such as the manual loading of bags into trolleys and stacking of bags inside an aircraft cargo hold, by automating the baggage handling process for narrow-body aircraft. ST Dynamics also won the first challenge in collaboration with IAI.
In the second challenge, CAAS sought to explore solutions for automating the build-up and breakdown of cargo pallets and containers. Thirteen teams submitted proposals. The developed prototypes were assessed by an evaluation panel comprising key members of the air cargo and logistics community – CAAS, DHL Global Forwarding (S) Pte Ltd, dnata Singapore Pte Ltd, SATS Ltd, Singapore Air Cargo Agents Association @Singapore, Singapore Airlines Cargo Ltd, and Singapore Logistics Association.
Two teams – ST Dynamics and TUM CREATE Ltd. Singapore (TUMCREATE), were shortlisted and awarded a total of S$4 million in funding to develop prototypes over two years, since September 2015. The team with the winning prototype was presented a cash prize of S$300,000.
Each team’s prototype comprised three main subsystems:
- Advanced Cargo Scanning System: The scanning systems are capable of detecting cargo of various sizes, shapes and materials, and can also identify various handling labels such as ‘fragile’ and ‘dangerous goods’.
- Intelligent Optimisation Software: The optimisation software processes the cargo data captured by the scanning systems, and plans the build-up and breakdown of the pallets and containers. The optimisation software is currently programmed to maximise the volume, weight and stability of the cargo pallet and container, but can also be programmed for other parameters.
- Automated Robotic System: The robotic system comprises robotic arms with specially designed grippers to pick and place a wide range of cargo with high precision, and can work alongside Automatic Guided Vehicles.
Both prototypes from ST Dynamics and TUMCREATE performed well during their respective final prototype demonstrations, with scope to further improve their performance. Both prototypes were able to reduce the workload for workers by about 30%, whilst improving their contributions. The prototypes’ software were able to optimise for multiple parameters such as weight and centre of gravity at the same time, which will improve work productivity.
The prototypes achieved 89% space utilisation on average, which is slightly better than the 85% space utilisation that a cargo planner can achieve today, while maintaining performance standards comparable to the current manual processes. On average, the two prototypes achieved a build-up time of 48 minutes, which is comparable to the typical build-up time of up to 40 minutes today.
Some companies have expressed interest to follow up with the teams on the technologies that have been developed. CAAS will also be working with interested companies to further develop these prototypes for implementation at Changi Airport.
The winning solution
The winning solution is designed to be cost-effective and can be easily installed with minimal modifications to existing cargo terminal infrastructure. The solution maximises the volumetric utilisation of cargo Unit Load Device (ULD) pallets and containers. It has an automatic cargo scanning and logging capability, via 3D scanning systems, so that upon cargo arrival, the scanning station creates a 3D analysis of its shape and weight, and records any special handling instructions or rules.
Automated Guided Vehicle Forklifts (AGVs) pick up cargo items from the scanning station and store the cargo at an assigned storage area. The AGVs automatically adjust their fork width, so that wooden skids and crates of different widths can be handled without human intervention.
Once the ULD build-up process starts, the AGVs retrieve cargo items from the storage area and place them at the cargo build-up area. The AGVs then assist in the build-up of ULD pallets for large and heavy cargo items on wooden skids.
Advanced ULD Planning Optimisation Software ensures the automatic building of ULD Pallets with high volume utilisation. The software generates the optimal ULD build-up plan and instructs the AGVs and robotic arms on the loading sequence and where best to place the cargo items on the ULD. ULD scanners also provide real-time feedback on available space. All these steps are performed in real time while taking into consideration operational rules and loading constraints.
Mr. Kevin Shum, Director-General of CAAS, said, “I congratulate the teams for the great effort. Both teams produced excellent solutions, which leveraged advanced cargo scanning, intelligent optimisation and robotics technologies. The solutions are cutting edge. They have the potential to transform the cargo handling process – benefiting airlines, ground handlers and workers. They will support the air transport industry transformation map, aimed at raising productivity and creating better jobs for our air transport workers.”
Mr. Wong Chee Meng, Senior Vice President, Cargo Services at SATS, added, “SATS has always embraced technology to handle volume increases and transform ourselves into a next-generation ground handler. I am heartened to see, through the Aviation Challenge, impressive prototypes developed to enhance efficiency and increase productivity. Productivity enhancements are in line with what we are doing at SATS and we are glad to have collaborated with CAAS as part of the technical committee and evaluation panel for this impactful exercise.”