Robots help Munich Airport step up automation

evoBOT and O³dyn. Copyright: Fraunhofer IML, Vinzenz Neugebauer

Robots are helping Munich Airport step up automation and efficiency in its operations through a project that aims to embed digital technologies in air cargo handling.

The initial results of a Digital Testbed Air Cargo (DTAC) research project at Munich Airport have been demonstrated by researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics IML, together with Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences, insurance company KRAVAG and industrial partners at Munich Airport, including Cargogate, CHI, Sovereign Speed and DB Schenker.

The DTAC project, which has around €7m in funding from the German Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport and will run until September 2024, is focusing on how the efficiency and performance of the airfreight transport chain can be optimised. The project aims to achieve this through better networking and digitalisation of processes.

During the demonstration of the project at Munich Airport, several autonomous and automated devices were successfully used to either completely take over some very labour-intensive and repetitive steps at relevant interfaces in the handling process or to support employees in their physically demanding work.

Robots working in very different ways were given key roles, said Munich Airport. Boston Dynamics’s robot dog Spot, which is equipped with a scanner and 4K camera, patrolled the warehouse autonomously and identified large storage pallets ready for storage and the corresponding storage locations.

An autonomously operating forklift took cargo to an automated high-bay warehouse and the omnidirectional, highly dynamic robot O³dyn, developed by Fraunhofer IML, was responsible for transporting Euro-pallets to a neighbouring warehouse.

The evoBOT, also developed by Fraunhofer IML, is a dynamically stable system with two gripper arms based on the principle of an inverse pendulum and requiring no external counterweight.

This robot placed packages from an Euro-pallet onto the conveyor belt of an X-ray machine and back onto the pallet after the X-ray process. These processes were steered via the Fraunhofer control system software “openTCS” – a low-threshold tool for coordinating automated guided vehicles (AGVs).

Jan-Henrik Andersson, chief commercial officer and chief security officer at Munich Airport, stated: “The cooperation between Fraunhofer IML and Munich Airport is future-oriented. Considering the increasing volume of air cargo and the staff recruitment challenges, digitalization and robotics will help us make cargo and baggage handling more efficient and jobs in these areas more attractive in the near future.”

Christian Bernreiter, Bavarian State Minister for Housing, Construction and Transport, added: “This was a convincing demonstration that shows that we are very well prepared for current and future challenges. This is particularly important in the air cargo industry. The industry has to manage the split between shortage of staff on the one hand and high throughput rates on the other. This will only be successful if we make use of all the technological developments available to us for process optimization.”

Not all process steps were fully autonomous during the demonstration that took place at Munich Airport and some processes were controlled manually, but the researchers believe that the degree of automation in air cargo handling will increase rapidly.

“On the hardware side, as today has clearly shown, we are already well advanced. In the future, artificial intelligence will support us in coordinating and controlling the vehicles. It will provide the necessary tools and algorithms with which we can precalculate the routes of the autonomous robots and safely avoid collisions. Ultimately, we will soon have fully autonomous systems that will make the air cargo industry fit for the future,” summarised Michael Henke, executive director of Fraunhofer IML.

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Rebecca Jeffrey

Rebecca Jeffrey
New to aviation journalism, I joined Air Cargo News in late 2021 as deputy editor. I previously worked for Mercator Media’s six maritime sector magazines as a reporter, heading up news for Port Strategy. Prior to this, I was editor for Recruitment International (now TALiNT International). Contact me on: [email protected]