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The rise of big data has profoundly reshaped parts of the global economy. And thanks to innovative advances such as the Internet of Things, we are redefining how apps, devices and people interact and connect with each other. These advances have the potential to change the way we do business in profound ways.

The aviation industry was one of the earliest adopters of big data, and has shaped the field’s development. Airlines, always diligent data collectors, are now developing new ways to put that data to use in innovative ways.

In 2014, Delta released an app allowing customers to see the location of their baggage. This required no new data collection: the bag’s location was logged by hand scanners already used by the cargo crew. Delta’s breakthrough, though, was to put that data to work for their customer relations. The app has been downloaded 11 million times.

There are now a number of areas where big data solutions are poised to revolutionize old ways of doing business. One standout is the air cargo sector, which is embracing technological and regulatory changes to boost its profitability and compete more effectively with other shipping options. 

A Focus on ULDs

The ULD, or Unit Load Device, is the fundamental building block of air cargo. ULDs allow for intelligent weight distribution by providing a standard cargo container that's easy to arrange in an airplane’s cargo hold. The savings in fuel, time, and safety over loose cargo made the ULD a revolutionary technology when it was introduced. And as the standard unit for air cargo, it’s a logical place to integrate big data solutions.

There are real problems facing air cargo companies that stem from ULDs. During the transfer between airlines, when third-party ground crews are responsible for the cargo containers, millions of dollars worth of value is lost to damage, mishandling, and delays.

According to the International Air Transport Association, “Every year, the total cost of both repair and loss of ULDs is estimated about $300 million, excluding the costs associated with aircraft damages, flight delays, and cancellations due to ULD operations. However, ULD training requirements, operating standards and procedures, as well as handling best practices, vary enormously across the industry, ranging from excellent to non-existent.”

“The ULD has always been a dumb box,” notes Bob Rogers, an adviser at Nordisk Aviation Products “but it has the potential to be a smart piece of equipment which is able to transfer information between parties.” But how can we make a “smart” ULD a reality?

Creating 'Smart' ULDs

IATA has turned its focus to exactly that question. Besides lobbying for increased regulatory harmony, IATA has also set its sights on the future by proposing a system-wide transition to an electronic receipt system. Making its case directly to airlines and other stakeholders, the group argues that an all-electronic receipt system creates a clearer and more enforceable chain of responsibility that will raise standards, reduce accidents and save money. This is all preferable to the prevailing system, which still relies on paper receipts.

In the meantime, more and more stakeholders are pushing for smart ULDs. Air New Zealand and Delta have both started pilot programs to equip ULDs with sensors and allow them to communicate with flight and ground crew about their contents.

Industry experts see smart containers as offering real solutions for challenging cargo types such as live animals and pharmaceutical products. ULDs that can sense and report temperature changes, humidity, damage, or animals in distress could all prevent damaged or lost property.

Sensors wouldn’t just help avert catastrophe or prevent damage, however. IoT-enabled containers would also mesh with existing data systems for warehouses and airports, leading to tangible gains in speed and efficiency. Rather than use “massive search parties” to retrieve specific pieces of freight, a simple geolocation system could allow ground crews to pinpoint any piece of cargo at any time.


The Internet of Things is here to stay, and air cargo is ready to benefit from it. By insisting on regulatory harmony and up-to-date standards, stakeholders can create fertile ground for digital solutions to take root, increase efficiency, and solve persistent problems. Moreover, an air cargo sector that foregrounds IoT integration now will be well placed to capitalize on future advances, including wearables and warehouse automation. But that change has to start somewhere, and the ULD is that place.

Learn more about the ways by which the air cargo supply chain is being transformed by the Internet of Things.

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