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Connected Air Cargo Keeps Flying Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

As passenger traffic plummeted to historic lows in March, some of the world’s largest airlines have had to ground a significant number of passenger airplanes, furlough pilots, flight attendants and maintenance workers among others.

During that same month, data reported by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) shows air cargo traffic was only down 15 percent.

Some passenger airlines have also started transforming their passenger planes into cargo ready cabins, as customers across a variety of industries continue to require critical shipments, including hospitals and organizations in need of medical supplies and personal protective equipment to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

American Airlines is now operating about 140 all-cargo flights per week. In April, Lufthansa started transforming its Airbus A330s into all-cargo configurations for flights transporting medical supplies and personal protective equipment between China and Germany.

“It is the bright spot for the industry because it is the only part that is operating and earning revenue at any scale,” Alexandre de Juniac, head of IATA, told reporters during a weekly media briefing in April.

An increasing portion of cargo that continues flying today is being transported within a growing air and ground digital infrastructure enabling a new Internet of Things (IoT) era for this segment of the commercial aviation industry. The IoT air cargo in-flight tracking concept started to emerge in flight trials conducted by several air cargo carriers in recent years, and now is really beginning to take off through the deployment of new technologies on and offboard aircraft.

One such company that has taken the lead in this area is Unilode, a Switzerland-based supplier of specialized Unit Load Devices (ULD), which feature sensors and bluetooth technology capable of transmitting parameters associated with critical air cargo through an in-flight connectivity network. The company outsourced management and associated services for aviation containers, pallets and in-flight food service equipment to more than 90 airlines.

“Unilode will deploy over 140,000 tags through its entire ULD fleet and extend its reader network at over 250 airports with completion expected by the end of 2021,” Martijn van Geest, Managing Director Digital Transformation, Unilode Aviation Solutions told Avionics.

A Unilode ULD awaiting a flight at Zurich International AirportUnilode

Each individual ULD supplied by Unilode is already equipped with Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) 5 tag fully embedded into its structure, with those in need of upgrades being modified when they’re not in use. Working with airframe manufacturers, Unilode developed a corner piece which embeds the BLE tag into the edge rail of the ULD in an effort to minimize interior space impact. Besides geographical tracking, the tags can also provide additional sensor information such as temperature, humidity, shock and lighting data.

Inside the corner piece, there is also a small antenna that transmits cargo data for in-flight tracking. But the specialized ULDs are just one element within an array of aircraft, airport and warehouse IoT “digital reader” infrastructure that Unilode is in the process of deploying.

“One of the main advantages of our solution is the in-flight tracking capability,” van Geest said. “It helps capture sensor data such as temperature throughout the entire supply chain. The in-flight sensor data can either be stored for the duration of the flight and made available after touchdown through the [Global System for Mobile Communications] GSM network or it can be transmitted during the flight through the onboard Wi-Fi network.”

A Unilode ULD prepares to be loaded. Unilode

Unilode owns over 140,000 units and is in the process of deploy a worldwide reader network at over 250 airports that can serve up to 40 airlines in “one go,” van Geest said.

The other key to this new connected air cargo IoT infrastructure is the partnership that Unilode has with OnAsset Intelligence, an Irving, Texas-based supplier of cargo edge tracking and monitoring technology – including the tags that Unilode embeds in its ULDs.

In February, Unilode and OnAsset launched what they describe as a new aviation-compliant Bluetooth roaming network that enables a true IoT flight environment for air cargo carriers.

“Capturing sensor data can be performed through our inflight approved fixed installed readers onboard the aircraft or through a mobile device, such as an onboard tablet. Our interoperable approach allows us to transform almost every mobile device into a reader. This allows air cargo airlines to follow the journey of each individual ULD on every flight as its tags connect,” van Geest said. “With this setup, we can track the units in all stages of the journey, being the warehouse, road service or while in flight.”

While in flight, that sensor data captured by the embedded ULD antenna needs a communications medium through which to get to Unilode’s digital tracking dashboard that updates parameters reported by the ULDs which are used by airlines, warehouses and pharmaceutical companies. The onboard enabling electronics required to do this have been demonstrated by SITA FOR AIRCRAFT, using its IoT edge gateway that is deployed on an Aircraft Interface Device (AID). The AID allows SITA to configure exactly what individual data point needs to be transmitted to the ground, such as a temperature excursion alert.

SITA has shown this is possible using both satellite connectivity or its Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) data link network.

“Changes to cargo condition can be assessed before landing, enabling actions or decisions to be made in-flight to help optimize operations and customer experience,” Andy Hubbard, head of SITA’s cockpit communications portfolio, told Avionics. “From the shipper’s (pharmaceutical) point of view, this creates awareness and ensures regulatory compliance. From the airline perspective, this capability can be combined with other types of e-enablement services to improve the value of their connected aircraft.”

“Airlines use a variety of sensors and we want to enable them to work with our solution – a sensor-agnostic, open IoT onboard aircraft platform. This goes beyond other cargo sensor providers,” he said.

The IoT Gateway serves as a multi-layered connectivity bridge between the connected ULDs inside the aircraft and the external VHF, satcom and 3/4/5G networks that distribute the sensor data to the ground. SITA has also described use cases for its IoT Gateway to provide predictive maintenance and monitoring of other in-flight data outside of the connected air cargo concept.

“Transforming aircraft IoT from concept to reality enables a whole new era for exploration and opportunity within aviation, given that the industry generally has a slower rate of innovation in the air as opposed to on the ground. Our work with AirBridgeCargo and CargoLogicAir has been ahead of the game in this respect,” Hubbard said, referring to the 2018 demonstration flights of their IoT concept. “The current global climate created by the COVID-19 crisis has undeniably highlighted how essential cargo air transportation is, especially for sensitive pharmaceuticals.”

Air cargo IoT advancements are also progressing at another Swiss company, SkyCell, a Zurich-based provider of IoT-enabled air cargo containers. SkyCell has a business model that focuses on directly leasing their containers to pharmaceutical companies who have products and supplies to ship under agreements with airlines.

SkyCell’s containers are capable of recharging themselves and feature a network of sensors that monitor geolocation and temperature. The company has also established a cloud platform that documents each individual container's temperature reading throughout its flight in blockchain-style ledgers.

In April, SkyCell closed a new $62 million financing round, led by MVM Partners LLP, despite the economic uncertainty facing the aviation industry amid the COVID-19 pandemic. SkyCell

“All of SkyCell’s containers are equipped with IoT sensors, with each container collecting roughly 10,000 data points on a typical trip. The data is uploaded in transit when it passes an uplink point, located in over 100 major transportation hubs around the world,” SkyCell Chief Commercial Officer Marrie Groeneveld told Avionics.

30 different airlines are currently using SkyCell, including Emirates, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines. United became the first U.S. carrier to start using SkyCell containers in July 2019. Even amid the economic uncertainty facing the aviation industry under the COVID-19 pandemic, on Apr. 30, SkyCell announced a sign of investor confidence in the future potential of its IoT enabling air cargo technology. SkyCell CEO Richard Ettl announced the closing of a $62 million financing round, from a group of investors led by MVM Partners LLP.

Groeneveld said the building out of their digital infrastructure has helped to automated much of the human tasks involved with in-flight tracking of their smart containers.

“Our pharma clients have often referred to transit as a black box before working with SkyCell. We open this black box and provide data transparency through our IoT infrastructure,” Groeneveld said. “Since 2013, we collected over 850 million real-life data points of our shipments. Based on this data we can simulate any given lane with the SkyCell Transport Planner. This tool enables our clients to simulate different scenarios and do a risk assessment before executing an actual shipment. These strategic insights into the risk profile help our pharma clients, airlines and freight forwarders to create backup scenarios which is crucial in uncertain times such as the Covid-19 pandemic.”