The technology of airfreight

  • Charles Kauffman
  • June 16, 2017
  • Aircraft

State-of-the-art aerospace technology… once upon a time.

Most of us have come across a colleague or friend bemoaning the air freight industry’s inability to “innovate” or “modernize”. If you have not, try bringing up electronic air waybill penetration during your next cocktail party – after more than a decade of pushing carriers to go paperless, adoption is still hovering 50%. But, jokes about Cargo 2000 being renamed Cargo 3000 aside, the air freight industry has never been known as a hotbed of aerospace innovation.

But not all innovation comes from aerospace engineers.

While it is obvious that freighters are the core of the industry – just from the sheer number of freighter aircraft models that line the desks and bookshelves of our offices, let alone the cargo volumes uplifted by their full-size counterparts – most upgrades and improvements to hardware and software involving freighters have been far from “disruptive.” This is partially because the freighters in service today are all based on passenger aircraft designs. If the market were willing to pay for the design of purpose-built freighters, manufacturers would likely get creative. But, the market does not pay, and much of the technology utilized today was already mature before it was used in freighters.
Still, modern freighters are safer and more efficient to operate than their counterparts of the past – equipped with life-saving cockpit smoke protection systems, fuel-saving winglets and upgraded engines, more capable avionics, and lighter, more hassle-free, cargo loading systems, to name just a few examples. But these technologies, although potentially helpful to the bottom lines of many carriers, have little impact on the process of uplifting goods and transporting them from point to point.

Meanwhile, the innovations which are having, or will have, a real disruptive impact on the air freight industry did not begin in the engineering division of an aerospace company, but rather arose in response to customer demands.
In this month’s special feature, Cargo Facts examines new developments to some of the more familiar technologies on board 21st century freighters. From there, we will shift focus to some of the more customer-centric and exogenous innovations, and close with a look at what is to come.

Cockpit Smoke Protection

According to FAA Service Difficulty Reports, in-flight fires, smoke or fumes are some of the most frequent causes of unscheduled or emergency landings. Some reports cite an average of one precautionary landing per day. A 2005 report from Boeing meanwhile, referred to “in-flight fires” as the number-four cause of on-board fatalities, and the number-seven cause of accidents. Although preventing potential hazards that may lead to onboard fires is still the best method of avoiding cockpit smoke, there have in recent years been a number of improvements to the technologies which protect pilots and facilitate landings when smoke fills the cockpit.

Cockpit smoke hoods equipped with protective googles and an air filtration system have long been around to support pilots during emergencies. But such systems are only effective if the pilot is still able to see out the windshield. VisionSafe’s Emergency Vision Assurance System goes a step further with an inflatable vision unit that is easily deployed when smoke enters the cockpit, to give pilots a clear view to the windshield. VisionSafe says that nearly half of the global cargo fleet is already equipped with EVAS Cockpit Smoke Protection Systems.

Cargo Loading Systems

Modern cargo loading systems, like this one in an AEI-converted 737-400F, are far more reliable than their predecessors.

Cargo loading systems (CLS) are to freighters as butter is to bread – but unlike butter, which has hardly changed over the years, today’s CLS is the result of steady improvement. “The rollers, locks and guides which comprise modern CLS utilize proven and mature mechanical technology,” according to Ed Dugic, Ancra International’s director of sales and marketing. But there have been some improvements nonetheless.

When it comes to the powered cargo loading systems used in widebody freighters, progress has been made towards improving communication protocols, and reducing the amount of wiring that goes into a CLS. Previous generations of widebody CLS used as much as three miles of wiring, compared to systems today which can contain less than a mile of wires. With each simplification, the number of potential problems is dramatically reduced. Modern power loading units (PLUs, the building blocks of the system) have also decreased in size from 3 inches to 2 inches in height in order to avoid having to penetrate the floor panels. This, in turn, improves the drainage system on the aircraft deck. “When you penetrate the floor panel, you need a more complicated drainage system, and drains at each PDU pan” adds Dugic.

For manual systems, like those which will go into Boeing’s 737-800BCF conversions, Ancra uses a flippered siderail, which Dugic says can offer reduced turnaround time compared to the older, fixed-lip, siderails. Dugic continued, “pallets that are damaged or over-tensioned tend to jam under the fixed vertical restraints” and “unlike widebody aircraft, there is simply no space between the cargo and the liner in a 737 to get behind the pallets to help free them when they get stuck.”

Ancra says it holds a 98% market share of the loading systems in the narrowbody aircraft market, and recently announced it will provide all CLS for EFW’s A320 and A321 passenger-to-freighter-conversions. Ancra already has a similar arrangement for EFW’s A330-300 and A330-200 conversion programs


UPS’ fifty-nine 767-300Fs were all delivered without winglets. UPS has since chosen to add winglets to all of them.

For passenger jets, winglets are already dated (most of Boeing’s new programs use raked wingtips, while Airbus offers larger “sharklets” on its narrowbody aircraft and “winglet fences” for its widebody programs), but for freighters, which are often converted from mid-life passenger aircraft, winglets offer improvements in payload, range, and fuel consumption. They do so by recovering some of the tip vortex energy by smoothing airflow across the upper wing near the tip, and reducing lift-induced drag caused by wingtip vortices.

The decision to install or forgo wingtips is thus a calculation based on the aircraft’s role and the depth of its owner’s pockets. If the projected boost to a freighter’s revenue generation (through reduced fuel burn) is determined to outweigh the cost of winglet installation, a carrier will likely opt for them.
FedEx and UPS for example, both operate large 767F fleets. FedEx has chosen not to install winglets, while UPS (back in 2013) opted retrofit its entire 767 fleet with winglets from Aviation Partners Boeing. According to the manufacturer, the eleven-feet-tall winglets could either increase the range of UPS’ 767Fs by up to 320nm, or add 16,000 lbs to the payload. FedEx’s decision to skip winglets on most of its 767Fs (the three leased from LAN already had them) is said to be based on ramp-space limitations, and lack of perceived gains given the nature of its domestic network.


Cockpits then and now: The DC-9 freighter cockpit above probably seemed ultra-modern fifty years ago, but one look at the 787 cockpit below and you will understand why pilots today are happy to have their cockpits upgraded with new avionics. Top photo: Dmitry Avdeev/Wikimedia. Bottom photo: Alex Beltyukov/Wikimedia.

Similar to winglets, we are hard-pressed to find avionics engineered exclusively for freighter aircraft. That is not to say freighters and passenger aircraft have identical cockpits, rather that the cockpit technology used in freighters is based on existing passenger or military avionics.

UPS recently announced plans to upgrade cockpits in its 757, 767, and A300 fleets. Russ Gossman, lead engineer for the 757/767 cockpit display upgrades at UPS, was quoted in Aviation Today as saying the company would replace the cockpit avionics displays in its 757 and 767 freighters with new 787-style flat-panel display screens from Rockwell Collins. UPS says the main factor driving the upgrades was the fact that the cathode ray tubes illuminating existing displays will soon become obsolete. Additionally, the flat-panels are lighter and will save on fuel consumption. UPS currently operates seventy-five 757-200Fs and fifty-nine 767-300Fs. The replacement program is expected to take three years to complete.

UPS is also upgrading the cockpits on its fifty-two unit A300-600F fleet, with Primus Epic avionics provided by Airbus and Honeywell. As part of the upgrades, UPS will add an advanced flight management system, a new integrated standby instrument system, and a central maintenance system, and will replace the CRT displays with LCD monitors. Modern avionics are more easily upgraded than those of the past, much as a computer’s operating system updates frequently without requiring the installation of new hardware.

Rather than existing as independent systems, the new avionics for the A300 exist as processor cards loaded with software that can be upgraded over time. UPS is currently engaged in engineering for the project, and expects to receive certification for the upgrade by 2019. It plans to complete the project by 2022.

Apart from onboard flight displays, existing systems periodically benefit from upgrades which carry over from passenger jets. In May, Honeywell announced its weather radar solution will be available on the LM-100J, the new commercial version of the popular Lockheed Hercules. “Honeywell’s IntuVue RDR-4000 is pioneering the way to give pilots and operators access to clear skies, no matter how bad the weather. With technical advancements like turbulence detection out to 60 nautical miles and the use of live 3-D data and high-resolution ground mapping, our system makes sure pilots have the best information to fly safer, smarter and more efficiently around hazardous conditions,” said Bob Smith, president, Mechanical Systems & Components, at Honeywell Aerospace. “Regardless of why you’re flying, whether it’s for civil or military purposes, weather does not play favorites. Hail and wind shear from thunderstorms are damaging and can easily ground a mission,” Smith added.


While winglets and avionics are hand-me-downs from the passenger side of the industry, main-deck Unit Load Devices are designed specifically for air cargo applications. Though, unlike a cellphone manufacturer which employs a team dedicated to designing features that will generate customer demand, advancements in ULD technologies have mostly been a direct response to shipper demands. Take for example pharmaceutical shippers, who used to grumble that shipping via air was like dumping their products into a “black box.” Now, auxiliary sensors which can be added to ULDs offer visibility into the conditions surrounding the precious cargo while it is in transit.

Looking further ahead, Jettainer is planning to launch “smart ULDs” by 2021. These containers will be equipped with track-and trace systems capable of autonomously monitoring the container’s position, internal temperature and maintenance status during its journey.

While smart ULDs will certainly please shippers in the future, ULD manufacturers have other concepts in the pipeline to alleviate another major pain-point carriers often face – getting stuck with too many empty containers in one location and not enough in another. E-commerce is making the problem worse, as time-sensitive express parcels are thrown into a container more often than onto a pallet. Container pooling has made it easier for carriers avoid this situation by predicting when to utilize excess capacity for container repositioning. Almost inevitably however, carriers end up with an unwanted surplus of empty containers somewhere within their network that must be repositioned. ACL Airshop is developing a sturdy, durable, and collapsible ULD based on technology developed for horse stalls. The South Carolina-based company imagines a future where its clients will be able to ship back five or six folded ULDs in the same space that a single unit now takes up.

Airships and drones

Airships, like the Lockheed-Martin Hybrid Airship, above, have the potential to support a wide range of air freight activities in areas with little to no infrastructure.

In recent years, there has been no shortage of drone and airship concepts promising to decrease the cost, speed the delivery, or extend the range of air shipments. Most drone concepts focus on last-mile unit-level deliveries, while airships offer capacities comparable to that of a freighter aircraft.

The appeal of hybrid airships is potentially huge. They require little fixed ground infrastructure or runways, flight crews are optional, and they burn less fuel than airplanes – though how they will operate in adverse weather conditions at low altitudes however, remains to be seen. On the downside, they are much slower than aircraft.

Two of a handful of concrete concepts are UK-based Hybrid Air Vehicles’ Airlander, and US-based Lockheed Martin’s trilobe hybrid airship.

Hybrid Air Vehicles boasts a cruise speed of 80 nautical miles per hour for its 10-tonne-payload Airlander 10, and 105 knots for the planned Airlander 50 – but, given that both models will be able to stay aloft for several days, and longer if unmanned, they will have considerable range (up to 2,000 nm for the Airlander 50).

The Airlander will go head-to-head with Lockheed Martin’s tri-lobe Hybrid Airship. Although Lockheed has not yet built a commercial version, it has already displayed its airship technologies with a prototype demonstrator that it calls the P-791, developed by its Skunk Works team. Lockheed says it has already completed all necessary FAA certification planning steps required to start the certification process for a new class of aircraft, and is now moving forward with construction of a commercial test unit that will be used to complete the FAA type certification. Last year, in a vote of confidence for hybrid airships, UK-based Straightline Aviation signed a US$480 million LOI to purchase twelve airships from Lockheed.

A third option, which offers a trans-oceanic compromise between freighters and ocean freight, is the Natilus cargo drone. The 100-tonne capacity, 60-meter drone is being designed to fly much like an aircraft albeit, at less than jet speed. And instead of landing at an airport, Natilus’ drone is capable of docking and unloading at seaports. A full-size prototype is expected by 2020.
Unmanned aircraft will not be limited to large-scale vessels. Much work is going into developing lower-payload drones which deliver individual parcels. E-commerce giants around the world are actively engaged in developing last-mile delivery drones – an attempt to meet the demands of their customers for quicker deliveries. In February, UPS piloted its truck-mounted drone-launcher, which it believes could increase the efficiency of rural deliveries. The concept envisions a driver dispatching the drone from the roof of his truck, then moving on while the drone completes its parcel drop and subsequent return to the truck at a new location.

While the large airships and cargo drones will succeed or fail on their own merits, introduction of last-mile drones – particularly in densely populated areas – is more likely to depend on whether governments (national, regional, and municipal) allow them.

In May, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) published a proposed framework to regulate the operation of small drones. The proposal imparted a high degree of flexibility for EASA member states, meaning that nothing yet is settled. This European proposal followed a 624-page set of rules from the US Federal Aviation Administration, known as “Part 107,” which was released in mid-2016 and is the most comprehensive body of regulation on unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in the US to date.

From a practical standpoint, the updated regulations preclude most commercial UAS operations. The FAA stipulates that “unmanned drones must weigh less than 25 kg,” and that drones must “remain within visual line-of-sight” of the operator. The agency also maintained other extant rules, such as a ban on operation in densely populated areas, altitude restrictions and limits on camera applications for “see-and-avoid.” In other words, while Americans can enjoy the advantages of having their goods shipped on freighter aircraft equipped with winglets or upgraded avionics, they are still a long way from having cheeseburgers airlifted into their waiting hands.