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Digital freight containers – the next generation

A unit load device (ULD) is a pallet or container used to load luggage, freight and mail on wide-body and specific narrow-body aircraft. It allows a large quantity of cargo to be bundled into a single unit. At the Hanover Messe in April, Jettainer showed its enhanced digital ULD container, which it has started testing.


ettainer, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Lufthansa Cargo AG, is responsible for the complete management of ULDs for 25 airlines.

This includes managing, positioning, maintaining and servicing the items, and even providing customised IT and financing concepts. Together with IT experts from

Lufthansa Industry Solutions, the company has revised its original device and equipped it with new functions. The focus is now on registering and recording shocks and damage as well as temperature changes. Initially, 100 units will be equipped with the new device for test operation.

“Compared to the first-generation digital container, we no longer attach so much importance to the real-time location of our containers, as it has been shown that the advantages compared to current methods are only marginal,” says Jettainer’s Director of IT & Operations Arnd Trapp. “Rather, the focus is now on recording sensory events to obtain information about damage and to improve our repair processes. Data on damage allows us to better plan the subsequent repair processes – if we can provide workshops with information on damaged containers in advance, this speeds up processes because technicians can prepare themselves and spare parts can still be procured before the units arrive.”

With 90,000 units in use worldwide, this has enormous potential. “At the same time, the new containers also increase our ability to identify the originators of the damage,” says Managing Director Carsten Hernig. “And that helps us to motivate people to implement more responsible handling

10 /// Aerospace Test & Validation 2018

of the ULDs. Based on big data analysis, we have developed a so-called decision support system to provide our controllers with useful suggestions.” But digitisation in aviation still has special challenges due to the very strict aviation law requirements which influence how to get data safely transmitted without disturbing air traffic. The digital container needs to know whether it is in the aircraft and what it is actually allowed to do and when not to do so. This means that the container in the aircraft must automatically switch off its transmitting functions and be able to distinguish normal turbulence from damage- relevant vibrations. The second generation device uses a sensor-based IoT approach – a kind of “black box” for ULDs. The sensors measure acceleration, temperature, air pressure or the position of the container, for example. The innovation lies in the intelligent combination of sensor data, which creates a special digital signature. This is used to determine whether a container is moved normally by a forklift truck, for example, or is accelerated unnaturally quickly if it has fallen off. Data from different sensors can be uniquely identified, clearly documented and simultaneously analysed. Another special feature is the economical use of energy: while commercially available devices usually scan and record continuously, the device developed for this ULD is designed to fall into an extreme energy-saving mode at the “uninteresting” times, only to “wake up” in real time when relevant processes are recorded. In the design phase, great

importance was attached to the use of licence-free components to control

❱ ❱ The team (top) behind digital ULDs demonstrate the IoT based sensor system (bottom) for recording potentially damaging events

operating costs. In the Internet of Things environment, this is often an underestimated topic, since even the smallest amounts (for example, costs for mobile communications) in IoT-typical quantities suddenly become large cost items. And it needs to have good energy efficiency, as the installed sensors and devices must have a service life of at least 18 months. “In cooperation with Tongji University in Shanghai, Jettainer is exploring the potential of new technologies,” says Trapp. “The potential of blockchain, cloud computing or artificial intelligence is not yet completely predictable even for specialists.” n

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