Baggage handling systems are using advanced technology to solve industry challenges and boost reliability, efficiency and security. Chris Anderson reports
Old tech, new uses
Some of the technology employed in baggage handling might already be familiar to other industries, such as logistics, but it looks set to change the face of baggage handling as we know it.
Netherlands-based Vanderlande is one of the companies discovering innovative ways to apply its technology to the baggage handling space. “We’re continuously working on new developments to improve efficiency, predictability and stability in baggage operations,” said Sven Platschorre, director of airport solutions at Vanderlande. “The most recent technologies that we believe will greatly affect the industry are advanced robotics and AI. Over the last decade, remarkable advances have included our Bagload system, with automated robotic loading, and Fleet Bag, which is the automatic sorting and transporting of individual bags using automated vehicles.
Customers worldwide are seeking modular and powerful solutions
“To ensure stable and reliable baggage handling, data-driven predictability is also important. With strategic digitalisation and the smart use of data, it’s possible to prevent equipment failures and anomalies in the process, which could lead to mishandled or lost bags. Sustainability can also be improved through technology, addressing energy consumption, the materials used, the circular economy, and providing a fulfilling work experience.”
Philippe Hamon, sales director, airport solutions, at France’s Alstef Group, has likewise seen the adoption of baggage handling technology increase momentum. “Automated Guided Vehicle (AGV) technology is now being proposed for baggage handling applications,” he said, “and although not yet widely adopted, as is the case in the broader materials-handling world – the use of AGV and Automated Mobile Robot (AMR) technology in baggage handling is growing significantly, promising a wide range of benefits.”
For Siemens Logistics, a technological overhaul in baggage handling was inevitable. “An efficient, reliable and smooth baggage handling operation is one of the major challenges for airports and airlines,” explained Michael Schneider, CEO. “Customers worldwide are seeking modular and powerful solutions, which they find in our comprehensive Vario portfolio. Take, for example, our latest VarioTip for automated Unit Load Device (ULD) unloading. This innovative solution effectively addresses productivity and efficiency concerns at airports, dealing with staff shortages, for more sustainable performance and operation.
A Vanderlande baggage robot in action – a good example of the work going on behind the scenes, unbeknown to travellers
“Siemens Logistics’ major differentiator is its expertise and advanced way of combining the real and the digital worlds to empower businesses. AI, machine learning, advanced algorithms and data analytics are all forms of emerging technology that we’ve been integrating successfully in projects to improve our customers’ airport operations that can help.”
For Per Engelbrechtsen, business development director at German intralogistics specialist Beumer Group, airports have a duty to communicate with travellers, and by using technology to generate real-time data that keeps everyone informed, the consumer experience is much improved. “People want to know where their baggage is, or if there’s a problem,” he told Airports International. “Companies like ours become a kind of information provider, supplying the data for use in the storytelling process.”
Data provides airports with a basis for predictive analytics, 3D visualisation and machine learning
Addressing common problems
In the world of baggage handling, one of the ways technology is being sold to airports is that it can help to solve common problems. For Siemens Logistics’ Michael Schneider, just getting various stakeholders of the existing system to talk to each other on a common basis and present their data is a monumental first step. “Digitalisation is a major enabler for simplifying the complex and diverse airport process landscape in general, but there are often complex structures and IT design issues to contend with, and a common database for the numerous stakeholders is very often missing,” he explained.
“Data is kept in silos and in different formats, making it difficult or even impossible for it to be used to generate comparisons and insights to monitor and optimise processes. Our Aviation Data Hub (ADH) addresses these kinds of issues and empowers more transparency over end-to-end baggage handling operations. The ADH allows a standardised data exchange in real time by breaking up data silos, enabling a new way of collaboration among the various systems and applications used by airlines, ground handlers and other stakeholders at airports.”
Technology such as a self-service bag drop frees up airport staff for other duties, allowing them to focus more on the customer.
The SmartService portfolio uses predictive analysis and resource utilisation to enable users to undertake scheduled just-in-time maintenance
For Per Engelbrechtsen at Beumer Group, the starting point is reviewing the design of the system itself. “We can deliver a complete baggage system ourselves, or one that integrates with the technologies of third parties,” he said. “This is an advantage of modular systems, building in the software, data services and the mechanics, according to the customers’ needs.”
Engelbrechtsen describes ICS (Individual Carrier System) technology, found to be used in nine of the ten busiest European airports in 2019, and implemented in seven of the nine Skytrax five-star international airports, and which is steadily becoming more advanced. Instead of a long conveyor belt, favoured by older, traditional systems, this is a modular style made up of smaller sections. “It’s scalable and flexible, and you can update it as the airport grows,” he continued. “Sections can be isolated, according to the amount of luggage, making it cost-effective in terms of energy use and general wear, and it generally has a higher capacity than AGV technology. What we’re now seeing is this technology running on fewer and more energy-efficient motors, and further helping to lower an airport’s carbon footprint.”
Adapto Bagstore is a unique shuttle-based automated system with built-in sorting capabilities
As Philippe Hamon at Alstef points out, the recent pandemic has also seen airports adopting newer technology. “Airports have seen how air traffic can be impacted by a world event,” he said. “They want to be able to cope with huge decreases and rapid increases in their baggage handling system investment programmes, and AGV technology is the most scalable, and more efficient than belt or ICS systems. Bag tracking is another issue solved by this technology, with AGVs offering full traceability for each item, requiring far less fixed infrastructure than traditional solutions. We see already that technology such as a self-service bag drop frees up airport staff for other duties, allowing them to focus more on the customer.”
Sven Platschorre at Vanderlande is also keen to address staff shortages. “It’s a huge challenge, but as automation increases, with advanced robotics and AGVs in the make-up area, you can be sure it doesn’t impact efficiency,” he said. “Baggage handling in the flight make-up area is a highly manual process, and one of the more impacted due to limited resources. Automation minimises the lifting of bags, and with our Stack@Ease and Bagload advanced robotic solutions, this reduces the manual aspect and improves ergonomics for operators.
“If we also implement the batching principle using our solutions, we not only make the operators work more efficiently but we also save space. Combining Adapto Bagstore, a unique shuttle-based automated system with built-in sorting capabilities, and our baggage control software, Vibes, means bags can be retrieved and loaded in batches by flight, rather than each one by one.”
AI is key to Alstef’s predictive maintenance solution, BagXpert, helping determine the optimal time for the maintenance of baggage handling equipment
Technology in action
Perhaps the best way to understand the adoption of technology in baggage handling is to look at specific airports where the changes are already happening. “Towards the end of last year, we deployed an improved version of our Bagsort sortation allocation control (SAC) software at Montréal-Trudeau International Airport in Canada, a long-standing customer,” revealed Alstef’s Philippe Hamon. “This enables US Customs Border Protection (CBP) to perform the pre-clearance of passengers on Canadian soil, which requires processing data related to baggage and passengers.
“It facilitates advanced routing logic, including airport-specific business rules, fully integrates with existing airline systems, and offers Baggage Image Weight Identification System (BIWIS) functionality, including image capture and automated bag recall. The solution also controls the Early Bag Storage (EBS) system, which comprises 450 individual conveyors.”
As part of another initiative, Alstef has joined forces with transport industry provider SITA to develop Swift Drop, identifying overweight and oversized luggage in seconds, with advanced camera tag-reading and dimensioning technology ensuring it can be processed faster. “Our new baggage handling system at Mexico City’s Felipe Ángeles International Airport is also up and running,” Hamon continued. “It’s one of the largest we’ve ever done, during COVID-19 as well, processing 22 million passengers per year, controlled via our BagWare control suite, which includes BagSort, BagAnalytics and BagView.”
The CrisBag tote-based system is popular with airports keen to future-proof their baggage handling
The completed system is maintained by an on-site Alstef Group maintenance team and will benefit from the company’s latest innovations, including BagXpert – a predictive maintenance solution that uses IoT sensors and AI analysis to optimise maintenance operations. Representatives of the airport seem pleased with their investment, calling it the most advanced system of its kind in Latin America, thanks to its use of cutting-edge technology.
Beumer Group, meanwhile, is proud to have been tasked with replacing the existing baggage handling system at Oslo Airport with its ‘future-proof’ version, which promises forward-thinking operations based on data-driven decisions, and will be fully compatible with the technologies of tomorrow. “Our CrisBag tote-based handling system will be delivered as an end-to-end solution for the entire baggage handling process, including the CrisBag Self Bag Drop for the passenger, and the CrisStore solution enabling batch building and optimised make-up processes,” Per Engelbrechtsen told Airports International. “Departure, arrival and transfer bags will be processed, with 100% tracking at all times. More effective handling, without heavy lifting, will be included, as well as automatic speed loading. It will enable faster baggage transfers, with low operating costs. It will be ready in summer 2024.”
Siemens will supply Kuala Lumpur International Airport with its VarioTray solution
Siemens Logistics, known for supporting some of the busiest international airports, will modernise the complete baggage handling system at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia, and has recently been awarded further major developments, such as Austin, Dallas, Noida in India, and Incheon in South Korea. “We will supply Malaysia with our latest technologies, including VarioTray, the fastest and most durable ICS on the market, VarioBelt, and the individual retrieval solution EBS VarioStore,” said CEO Schneider. “The hardware performance is powered by our BagIQ Control Suite that enables smart routing and functionality. It also seamlessly integrates with the Aviation Data Hub and thus the airport’s ecosystem. The achieved performance will resonate greatly with the passenger experience and the level of operational excellence in general.”
Vanderlande, meanwhile, has built the baggage handling system for a satellite terminal at Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport, and the entire system for the new Qingdao Jiaodong International Airport in Jiaozhou, both in China. “In Shenzhen, we built and integrated the entire system, and supplied our Vibes software for low-level and high-level controls,” explained Platschorre. “And then for Qingdao, which is expected to handle more than 35 million passengers a year, we devised a complex system, above and below ground, with several check-in islands, tilt-tray sorters and 19 make-up carousels, featuring our Stack@EAse loading solutions. With our lane-based Bagstore storage facility, the system will be capable of holding around 1,500 bags.”
Real-time data is essential to effective baggage handling, not least at the maintenance level
The introduction of advanced technology to the world of baggage handling has only just begun, and is destined to become even more sophisticated. “All the time, we are looking at how we can improve our automation and flexibility,” Vanderlande’s Platschorre admitted. “Our next generation of Bagload robotic loading, for example, will offer a much higher capacity, with AI a key enabler for such concepts as smart stacking and bag recognition, improving our processes by predicting and preventing errors, as well as equipment breakdowns.”
These observations are echoed by Beumer Group’s Engelbrechtsen, who sees the widespread use of a ‘digital twin’ – a virtual representation of the operations of an airport in real time, including baggage handling – as the next logical step. “You’ll be able to see the luggage moving around on the screen, with all of the data feeds streaming in front of you, helping you to fully visualise the flow of items,” he explained. “You can then apply different overlays and filters, pinpoint the luggage for a particular flight, or look for bags with less than20 minutes to closing time, and potential bottlenecks. The data can be presented in many different ways, enabling the user to act on it or compare it to historical data. It’s a very powerful tool.”
As well as boosting efficiency, future technology is also likely to further improve sustainability. The airline industry’s carbon footprint is under constant scrutiny, and carriers are always looking for ways to improve their emissions. The pre-screening of baggage, which gathers size and dimension data, for example, opens up a range of opportunities in terms of sorting, loading and forecasting the efficient use of space, and the minimum number of flights needed. If technology can make airports smarter about the ways in which an aircraft is loaded, and help make cargo transport more efficient, then a ‘more freight, fewer flights’ approach can help to reduce emissions.
Developed by Alstef and SITA, Swift Drop can identify overweight and oversized luggage in seconds
Need to know more: AI in BHS
Perhaps the most advanced form of technology to be used in baggage handling is artificial intelligence (AI) – the ability of machines to analyse data, select the best course of action, and learn from the outcome.
Beumer Group uses AI to identify system elements that need inspection as part of its SaaS solution, BG Insight, with machine learning part of a proactive hotline, while Alstef uses it for its predictive maintenance solution, BagXpert. “It determines the optimal time for the maintenance of baggage handling equipment, helping you to avoid costly failures or unplanned downtime,” explained Alstef’s Philippe Hamon. “And the continuous learning capability means the system gets more efficient and accurate as time goes on.”
Digitalisation and machine-learning also has an important role to play in Siemens Logistics’ portfolio. “Our Baggage 360 Suite of applications is steadily growing, addressing the need for more transparency, as well as assisted or guided decision-making,” said Michael Schneider. “While some elements focus on predictive maintenance’s use cases across the whole installation portfolio, others like Baggage 360 aim at the ecosystem optimisation.
“The system can anticipate expected baggage volumes and arrival times overa 24-hour period. It also offers an interactive map as a digital twin for airport operations.”
He continued: “Among other things, customers can also monitor luggage in real time and it increases operational efficiency by making better operational decisions, enabling airports to enhance their service level, and at the same time improve the sustainability of their own operation.”
For Vanderlande, AI is a way to help optimise automation. “You might use image-recognition technology to identify and sort baggage based on certain characteristics,” said Sven Platschorre, who added: “The system can then provide the AGV with the best route and loading sequences.”
Using a digital twin will enable data to be presented in many ways, enabling the user to act on it or compare it to historical data