dnata will deliver AI-powered solutions for air cargo in Singapore. Photo - Etihad Cargo

Recent trials are leading to the wider adoption of AI-powered solutions to optimise air cargo services, despite a number of challenges that continue to persist.

For both cargo operators and handlers, some of the areas of interest for potential deployment of AI include customs and compliance, route optimisation and inventory management.

Handlers are talking about AI-powered robots for example, that can help reduce turnaround times and labour costs by speeding up loading and unloading processes and improve cargo security with real-time monitoring of potential threats on the apron or warehouse.

Other trials have shown that AI-compatible chatbots and customer service systems can provide real-time updates to shippers and consignees, improving communication and customer satisfaction.

A few months ago, Etihad Cargo announced plans to use AI to maximise cargo capacity on its flights. This followed a proof-of-concept agreement in 2021 signed with Singapore-based tech-start-up company Speedcargo, to boost efficiency, digitise and standardise cargo handling across the airline’s network.

Speedcargo installed its AI solutions – Cargo Eye and Assemble – at dnata’s Singapore Changi facilities integrating the solutions into dnata’s existing warehouse management system and deployed for use on Etihad daily flights from Singapore, reportedly in response to the successful trials.

According to the tech company, Cargo Eye uses advanced, vision-based 3D technology to scan and capture a cargo’s exact dimensions, volume data, images, and labels, providing a comprehensive digital record. This information is then fed into Assemble which creates a digital plan, advising dnata’s cargo handling teams of the optimal method of building a pallet.

The combined solutions ensure Etihad Cargo maximises cargo capacity, while becoming more efficient and sustainable.

Krishna Kumar Nallur, Speedcargo chief executive, said the AI-powered solutions allow Etihad Cargo to maximise capacity across its fleet, and enable dnata Singapore to digitise its cargo handling, thereby improving productivity.

Singapore is the first station to go live with the AI tools but dnata and Speedcargo have plans to roll out the technologies at other stations. Dnata serves 50 airlines at Changi and handles around 250,000 tonnes of cargo annually.

In May, Etihad Cargo said it was involved in an AI pilot programme in Frankfurt but its unclear how far those plans have progressed. Moreover, the airline has been talking to ground handlers about the viability of rolling out the technology at more international stations.

Additionally, Etihad has been analysing another Speedcargo AI tool called Amplifi, to optimise cargo loads on each flight. The airline said the technology dynamically calculates free and usable capacity based on booked cargo, aircraft type and cargo offer and using the system generated ULD-level load plans, the airline’s cargo operation can maximise the freight loaded and significantly reduce the risk of overbookings.

It appears however, that only the Cargo Eye and Assemble solutions have so far been integrated into dnata’s operations for Etihad.

However, despite the growing interest in AI solutions, industry studies have also suggested several issues that need to be addressed – including integrity of data, especially from industries known to have fragmented data sources, like air cargo. AI relies heavily on accurate data to give the right predictions and decisions.

New technologies don’t come cheap either and may require a significant upfront capital investment in infrastructure and the skilled people to run them, which means smaller cargo operators and handlers may find it challenging to allocate resources for AI adoption.

In addition, handling sensitive cargo and customer data requires robust data privacy and security measures, so compliance with data protection laws is essential and can be complicated.

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