Keeping track of containers, unit load devices (ULD) and dollies has been a longstanding challenge for airport ground handlers.

Where the challenges lie is in knowing factors such as where exactly the dolly is located on the airport apron, its status, maintenance requirements, and the overall utilisation of the dolly fleet.

The inability to gain a real-time status of a dolly, and whether or not it is empty or loaded, as well as which ULD is loaded, has created a lack of control over these assets. This, in turn, has caused a ripple effect with negative impacts on ground support equipment, manpower allocation and productivity, as well as associated costs and profit margins.

Recently, INFORM GmbH teamed up with Blumenbecker Technik GmbH to develop the industry’s first solution that facilitates a vastly improved process of managing and maintaining dolly fleets and effectively answers, in real-time, the questions:

  • Where is a dolly located?
  • Is it empty or loaded?
  • Where is the container/ULD?
  • Where are empty containers/ULDs?

By combining the information about dolly and ULD location, ground handlers are able to locate every ULD on the apron. The ground handlers have complete control over the degree of capacity utilisation of each dolly and therefore are able to efficiently use their fleet and reduce costs/number of dollies where possible.

From error-prone manual processes to intelligent dolly management

The basic idea was to bring together telematics and processes derived information to erase blind spots on the apron. The INFORM real-time allocation solution manages the optimised allocation and assignment of ULDs and dollies to a loading or unloading task. It provides a full view of the process relating to where a ULD is in the warehouse and to what location it will be provided and made available. This means INFORM’s real-time allocation system brings in the specific ULD information.

Blumenbecker’s technology complements that application by introducing a next-generation tracking system that not only tracks the location of a dolly, but also identifies whether a dolly is loaded or unloaded, as well as if it is defective or intact. This is especially important in order to quickly feed empty dollies to the loading process. Sensors on the dolly detect whether one or even several containers are loaded on the dolly. Already beta-tested at several airports, the solution facilitates location and status determination even without direct transmission.

Solar-powered tracking module

The tracking module, which has a protective plate to shelter it against external damage from containers, luggage or bad weather conditions, draws its energy from a solar unit. This solar-powered module is absolutely maintenance free and eliminates the need for routine battery replacements, while also saving on personnel resources and supporting environmental sustainability goals.

In operation, the system transmits data via an energy-saving low power wide area network (LPWAN) or via 4G Cat M1 (GSM). It provides the advantage of reduced data transmission and the use of much more cost-effective BLE (Bluetooth low energy) tags for the majority of dollies. The other significant feature of this network technology is its ability to operate even when direct transmission fails. Due to the indoor location, any location can be reliably detected even if a dolly is located in a building.

By identifying whether a dolly is loaded/ unloaded, defective/intact, unnecessary “empty runs” or time-consuming searches are avoided enabling tractor drivers to locate operational and empty dollies as quickly as possible. The tracking module also can be supplemented by a loading sensor that detects containers on the cargo trailers and continuously transmits the loading status to the airport’s monitoring system. Additionally, a fault message can be sent with a simple push of a button on the module. This enables fast detection of defective equipment.

Providing data in real-time

In combination with INFORM’s real-time allocation solution, it is possible to take the information and deliver precise data regarding a ULD’s status as to: what time it was loaded in the warehouse, where the dolly including the respective ULD was parked, and when it is ready for pick-up. In fact, by transmitting the dolly’s status data in real-time, ground handlers have complete control over their ULD as well. As soon as a ULD is placed on a dolly, the system knows which ULD has been loaded because the pick-up information has been delivered by INFORM’s software. This provides full assurance on which ULD is loaded on which specific dolly and the exact location of both dolly and ULD on the apron at every given moment.

Facilitating prudent maintenance schedules

Through the tracking module or RFID, each dolly is uniquely identified enabling individual object data to be called up, for example, based on its object number or maintenance history. This transmitted data can be used to create an operating profile for each dolly. Considering that some dollies are loaded more than others, maintenance by a strict calendar date is not the most efficient. The system can evaluate mileage and create load profiles so that maintenance service can be provided when it is actually needed and not based on a predetermined calendar date. This targeted maintenance helps ensure permanent safety and functionality, while also saving resources and costs.

From maintenance benefits to asset optimisation

In addition to supporting targeted maintenance and avoiding the associated random maintenance cycles, the solution also effectively helps ground handlers reduce their dolly fleet sizes. Localisation alone of course cannot reduce a fleet size, however, when a ground handler knows that, for instance, 500 of its 4,000 dollies are always empty on parking positions, an informed decision can be made to reduce the fleet. The solution also provides the ability to identify defective dollies and promptly calculate an alternative scenario should an empty dolly be needed for immediate loading.

Pushing the envelope over traditional tracking systems

Today, with increasing air traffic and the heightened emphasis on airlines’ on-time performance, the pressure on ground handlers to operate at peak efficiency has never been greater. Airports too are under high cost pressures. Aircraft handling must be fast and efficient. Advanced solutions help to promote greater control and to improve processes on the ground. Blumenbecker and INFORM have shown how pooling the strengths on both sides can help to maximise these goals and achieve results that are only possible by combining forces.