Exclusive - Belgian Software Developer is Adding the e-Dimension to Load Planning and Ramp Handling

A modest software developer on the outskirts of Antwerp is adding a new dimension to the complex process of cargo aircraft (un)loading. Its loading plan system ‘Sable’, developed for DHL Aviation, can already share information with the electronic flight bag (EFB). Soon it will be supplemented by the ramp handling system Rols.

Karel Tavernier, Technical Director of B.Rekencentra, developer of Sable -  photo: ms
Karel Tavernier, Technical Director of B.Rekencentra, developer of Sable - photo: ms

A modest software developer on the outskirts of Antwerp is adding a new dimension to the complex process of cargo aircraft (un)loading. Its loading plan system ‘Sable’, developed for DHL Aviation, can already share information with the electronic flight bag (EFB). Soon it will be supplemented by the ramp handling system Rols.

Family-owned B.Rekencentra has a staff of 35 and has its operational HQ in Ranst. The company builds software systems for the logistics industry mainly (90%). In the early days of this century the company’s Technical Director Karel Tavernier’s attention was drawn to DHL Aviation’s business area review (BAR) project, including a the major IT-system update. At the time DHL Aviation still had its intercontinental hub for Europe at Brussels Airport.
“Their intention was to substitute as many systems as possible by standardised solutions,” says Karel. “One of the first programmes under scrutiny, was their ‘weight & balance’ (w&s) system. Over the years they had developed their own system in-house. The company was going through a huge expansion and fleet renewal, leaving little room for support.”

Tailor-made solution
After having been contacted by a British consultant, Karel decided to bring B.Rekencentra into the race. “At first, my proposition was turned down, as the update process was already well advanced. We did not have a saleable product to offer either, but we would certainly be able to develop something. On the one hand, most w&b programmes are focussed on passenger aircraft, but on the other hand we had built one for TNT Airways.”
Re-tailoring this solution to the needs of DHL Aviation was no option, as it was a dedicated programme, the ownership of which had been handed over to TNT. The same goes for Sable. Karel: “DHL is still the owner of Sable, but thanks to a deal with them, we are allowed to put in on the market for other prospective users. Sable is totally different from the TNT programme: it is of a new generation, new technology and new set-up.”
In w&b the difference between passenger planes and cargo aircraft is that freighters need to go through a lot more checks than passenger aircraft, especially when main deck is concerned. The way of loading too, is very different.

Load sheet production
The crucial point in loading a cargo plane is the production of a legal load sheet. This is an official document to be approved by the captain before departure. Depending on the aircraft type, there are more or less checks to be carried out, says Karel. ”You will no doubt understand that these have to be performed as quickly as possible. One of the rules is: putting the heaviest containers in the middle.”
Sable works from the manuals of all the aircraft deployed by DHL Aviation, including the subcontractors.  Prior to every flight the scheduled cargo is put into the system or transferred from the warehouse management system (WMS). A distinction is made between containerised and loose freight. An overview is given of both the main and the lower deck.
A very important item is ‘optimal trim’, as it will generate the most economical fuel consumption. Another crucial item is the aircraft’s centre of gravity, which will move along with loading and the configuration. Sable indicates what the possibilities are in this respect, by showing a specific position on the aircraft.

A recent survey by IATA has revealed that lots of mistakes are made during loading and unloading, plus the recommendation to do something about that  -  courtesy Atlas Air
A recent survey by IATA has revealed that lots of mistakes are made during loading and unloading, plus the recommendation to do something about that - courtesy Atlas Air

Manual and autoload
Sable can carry out this process either through manual input or via autoload.  The latter was developed by the Ghent campus of the Leuven University. “Autoload provides an optimisation on three levels,” says Karel. “It aims at taking as much cargo as possible (as this generates revenue); going as closely as possible towards the centre of gravity and trying to bring the lateral imbalance as closely as possible to the zero level.”
Apart from the fact that many load planners prefer the manual method as they want to stay in control, there are other reasons for not using autoload. “As yet, the system is unable to calculate the right commercial trim for different legs on one trip. The underlying principle in this respect is: putting the cargo for the furthest destination as far from the door as possible.”
After the load plan has been drafted, Sable performs all checks. If these are not satisfactory, the documentation – the load sheet – cannot be performed. Once approved and produced, the load sheet can be taken to the captain either manually or through ACARS. This is the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, a digital data link system for the transmission of short messages between aircraft and ground. When delivered through ACARS, the captain can accept the load sheet by electronic signature.

Into the EFB
This information can also be loaded into the Electronic Flight Bag, an iPad-driven device replacing the traditional black ‘tool boxes’ pilots have to drag into their cockpits. Apart from the load sheets, EFB information may also include a list of DG, possible risks, NOTOC (note to the captain), loading plan and fuel. Karel thinks the EFB provides a great opportunity for taking his systems more into the open. “For companies that are already using EFB it is a great add-on.”
Drawing up the load plan is one thing, at the end of the day the plane has actually to be loaded and this is an area prone to mistakes. “For this we have developed ROLS (Ramp Offload and Load Supervisor), the development of which is in its final stage. We are working closely with a launch customer willing to implement the system.” Connected with Sable ROLS will pass on the instructions to the ramp supervisor and the ramp agents. Through his hand held device the supervisor will be able to see at which position the respective cargo is supposed to be loaded. The system will also generate the load sequence. The ramp agent will be informed per individual container to be loaded. Eventually, once the aircraft has been totally loaded, the supervisor will be able to communicate on ramp clearance.

Avoiding ‘nose-ups’
Rols will have two big advantages, says Karel. “Firstly, everything will be positioned at the allocated space, enhancing flight safety. Secondly, during loading there is a constant monitoring of ground stability, checking on the tail-tipping limit. The stability is assessed both when the container is at the door and on its final location in the aircraft.”
A recent survey by IATA has revealed that lots of mistakes are made during loading and unloading, plus the recommendation to do something about that. ROLS is an answer to that recommendation and - once implemented - tail tips will be incidents of the past.
Rols will be driven on a separate server that can receive messages from various w&b systems. For demo purposes and tests, Sable can be downloaded form a Cloud solution run by Accel, another Antwerp-based provider. In the near future, this concept may be interesting for smaller airlines that lack the means to invest in a giant make-over of their systems.
The commercialisation deal with DHL has enabled B.Rekencentra to implement Sable at Atlas Air, Cathay Pacific and Fraport Handling. Recently, the system was also acquired by Qatar Airways Cargo.

Marcel Schoeters in Brussels

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