Digital future of Cathay Pacific Cargo

As blockchain ULD tracking continues to roll out worldwide, high-tech tracking enhancements are in the works

Cathay Pacific Cargo is seizing the opportunities and benefits that digitisation and automation can offer the air cargo industry – and its customers. To date, there have been a number of proof of concepts using blockchain and trialling next-generation track and trace, so now is a good time to take stock of these evolving programmes of innovation and outline what customers can expect – and when.

As Frosti Lau, Cathay Pacific General Manager Cargo Service Delivery, says: ‘These proactive solutions typify both our industry-leading adoption of technology to improve our service and care, which underpins our ambition to be the world’s most customer-centric air cargo service provider, and to maintain the status of Hong Kong as the world’s number one air cargo hub.’

Blockchain ULD Management

In 2019, Cathay Pacific Cargo became the first airline to use blockchain to manage custody of its stock of Unit Load Devices (ULD), applying the technology in its own Cargo Terminal at Hong Kong International Airport. The second phase included Hong Kong cargo agents.

Previously when drivers delivered or collected pre-packed shipments or empty ULDs, they would write down the ULD numbers and manually exchange the paperwork at the Cargo Terminal. Under the new system, they can enter the ULD number into a dedicated smartphone app that logs the transfer of custody in a blockchain ledger, so both parties – agent and airline – know who has custody of which ULD.

Calvin Hui, Cargo Digital Manager - Transformation at Cathay Pacific leading work on next generation track and trace
Calvin Hui, Cargo Digital Manager - Transformation

So far, this process has gone over well with agents, with the adoption rate gradually increasing post-rollout to an adoption rate of 77 per cent because it speeds up the handover process and provides better visibility.

Now, drivers do not have to wait for ULD transfers at the terminal, nor to recheck and re-enter numbers if they have been incorrectly put in manually on receipts. One respondent to a user survey said: ‘Our drivers like it. When it’s raining, the driver doesn’t need to get out and go to the Truck Control Office.’

The new phase of the blockchain system rollout started in September, taking the technology overseas to four ports in the US – Miami, New York-JFK, Chicago and Los Angeles. The team also worked on finessing location information, said Calvin Hui, Cargo Digital Manager – Transformation. ‘We now know where the ULD is around the airport.’

This was done by using existing data from UCM (the ULD control message), and adding it in the ledger to give greater insight. Hui said: ‘When the flight departs, the UCM specifies if the ULD is being used for mail, baggage or cargo. With this data, we know on arrival it will go to the appropriate facility, and we know that’s where it is. It’s a simple solution, but it helps a lot.’

A wider global rollout is still to come, as well as further automation with Bluetooth trackers, which is becoming the technology of choice for next-generation track and trace.

Hui said: ‘The complete solution would be a smart solution combining both software and hardware. The blockchain is the software, and thanks to our IT team, we have that in place with the app and blockchain ledger. The next stage is to fix the front-end hardware because if the wrong information is entered, the blockchain record will be wrong.’

In the future, the aim is to automate the process using smart ULD Bluetooth technology. It will take some time to equip all of Cathay Pacific Cargo’s 20,000-plus ULDs, the majority of which are shared with a pool of airlines under a leasing contract. But the work to add Bluetooth readers will start late this year to make the process of entering data instant, automatic and fail-safe. ‘In two years’ time, we expect to have 100 per cent smart ULD capability,’ said Hui.

Low Energy Bluetooth (BLE) appears to be emerging as the leading technology, as it works without the interference that affects near-field technology like RFID or the need for QR codes that need to be ‘seen’ to be scanned. Plus it enables people to use smart devices as hardware for an app, enabling more commonality for agents working with different airlines. Hui said the team is working with ULD CARE and the IATA task force to create as common a user experience as possible.

Next generation track and trace

With the next-generation cargo-tracking solution, the emerging technology has brought about many vendors, systems and prototypes, but once again it seems that BLE is becoming the top choice for recording what happens in the box for high-value vulnerable and perishable shipments. ‘As more airlines are selecting the Bluetooth solution for ULD tracking, we are seeing a lot more Bluetooth readers within airport facilities, which gives us the inspiration to deploy cargo tracking using the same technology,’ said Clera Lam, Head of Cargo Digital.

Cathay Pacific Cargo next generation track and trace

The Bluetooth solution provides GPS location, if required, and records temperature, humidity, light and vibration. The idea is not new, as many pharma shippers use data loggers to record such information, but there are issues, Hui said. ‘Many of these loggers have tended to be based around a mobile phone chip to broadcast data in real time. Think of it as a cellular phone that keeps recording GPS location and temperature, that keeps on searching for a cellular network when it travels around the globe and uploading data every 15 minutes or so. This “mobile phone” will not be cheap, and the battery life will not be too long.’

Unlike cellular devices, Bluetooth transmitters are low cost, and their low power means longer battery life – around a year or more, rather than a week for a cellular logger transmitting approximately every 15 minutes. But many agents only download the data for post-shipment journey investigation. ‘That’s when agents contact us if they have detected a temperature excursion, but the shipment has gone and it’s not possible for us to remedy the situation,’ said Hui. ‘We want to offer a more proactive solution.’

Starting in a trial early next year, then rolling out to outports in a phased way from the first half of 2021, Cathay Pacific Cargo will offer a more proactive solution with a Bluetooth tracking device that agents can put into individual shipments. As shipments are delivered to the terminal, they will be tracked, and a dedicated team working 24/7 monitors the sensors from each transmitting device in cargo terminals and will take recovery actions when required. As with the current Ezycargo system or on, agents will also get visibility by entering the AWB number.

‘The system will receive data in real time,’ said Hui. ‘If something flashes red, staff will open a service log, while customers will receive an email with a status update. We can get someone to check the shipment conditions, and whatever needs to be done then and there.’

In the cargo terminal, coverage will be supplied by readers, while coverage in the ramp area at the departure and arrival airports will be supplied by a smartphone app. However, the short journey from ramp to terminal to aircraft is out of scope for live coverage, as is the flight itself. Inflight Wi-Fi is not yet universal across the aviation industry, and operational requirements may mean an aircraft with internet connectivity is exchanged for one without.

Even with a proof of concept behind them, there is still work to be done before the first trial and rollout next year, which includes selecting the right hardware supplier. Alex Leung, Cargo Products Manager, said: ‘We are also thinking about the costing model – whether it is a monthly subscription for the service or a one-off shipment cost.’

But the future of an open, accountable and proactive quality of service through technology is drawing near.

Calvin (centre) and his team at Cathay Pacific Cargo