Basic innovations warmly welcomed by the air freight industry don’t really happen every day. Here comes one: a “Smart Air Cargo Trailer” aimed at easing the often-strained situation at airports, predominantly at Frankfurt’s crowded CargoCity South. We spoke with one of the initiators, Professor Benjamin Bierwirth of the RheinMain University of Applied Sciences about the project. Next Friday, the scholar will deliver crucial insights into the concept to about 120 attendees taking part in a two-day event organized by Frankfurt’s Air Cargo Community.
Mr Bierwirth, your university and some supporting partners are jointly engaged in setting self-driving Smart Cargo Trailers on track. This brings up the question about the status of this
ambitious project and which main goals your group is pursuing with this autonomous operating vehicle.
BB: The project started in January with the aim of autonomous transport between cargo handling agents and the forwarding agent’s hub facilities. Coping with the bottleneck caused by the lack of truck drivers is one aim. Secondly, ‘Smart Trailers’ make the air cargo transport chain more transparent on the last mile.
In today’s world, forwarders are mainly responsible for the ground transport of air freight with handling agents standing in line. The problem: This setting in combination with the latest acceptance times causes peaks and trucking queues at the handling agents’ facilities. While the costs for waiting times run into millions of euros annually (for FRA only), inefficient utilization of truck capacity adds to the costs.
With our platform we will achieve transparency on both sides and thereby minimize waiting times while also increasing efficiency. So, we create a win-win situation benefitting all participants.
Is there an operational timeframe you are targeting? In other words, when do we see the first ‘Smart Trailer’ rolling through Frankfurt’s Cargo City South?
In the first six months we focused on the processes and requirements.
Another big challenge we still have to fully master is the identification of the shipments loaded onto the trailer. This should happen automatically with a camera system detecting already existing barcodes. Currently we are setting the prototype for internal tests on track. Later this year the camera system will be calibrated within the warehouses of partnering firms.
In parallel our group member CargoSteps develops the cloud platform and its interfaces.
The entire system centered around the self-driving trailer will be tested practically in the third or fourth quarter next year.
Self-propelled vehicles are now on everyone’s lips, although not in relation to cargo. However, they can pose a risk to other road users as do self-driving cars. So how do you eliminate
the potential threat of collision?
Since long, automated transports are an integral part of industrial production and
processes. In most cases their safety records are outstanding. Our Smart Trailers will be equipped with sensor technology, detecting obstacles and potential threats, this way avoiding collisions. Although the vehicles move faster within the CargoCity South compared to inside a warehouse or production site, their speed is still fairly limited. Further to this, there are only very few pedestrians and cyclists at the site. However, it is fair to say that there remains a residual risk.
In what way do these Smart Trailers benefit the air cargo industry, particularly firms doing business in Frankfurt’s CargoCity South, the launching site of your project?
Predominantly, we expect to lower the intra-airport transport costs. Simultaneously, the cargo partners involved benefit from less peaks and an improved utilization of their infrastructure and their workforce.
Any idea who the operator or operators will be? Supposedly it’s not your university.
This still has to be decided yet but as things stand, a main operator will be Sovereign Speed, a Hamburg-based logistics company and a driving force to bring the project up front.
It can be assumed that Frankfurt is not the only airport suited to these trailers. What will be the next steps to market the product internationally and turn it into a business success?
Although the cost for the autonomous vehicle is still very high, we assume the savings on waiting times and improved utilization will lead to a positive business case even on a small scale. So, in the first phase after the project’s launch we want to expand our focus targeting additional utilizers.
Basically, Smart Trailers can be operated at any airport with a larger cargo infrastructure where short-distance transports between handling agents and forwarder facilities is daily routine.
Wrapping things up I would say that only the sky is the limit for our new industrial baby.
Interview: Heiner Siegmund