FLEET: all systems go at Rotterdam

In November 2018, Vanderlande achieved a significant milestone for its future-proof baggage logistics solution, FLEET. Beginning live operations at Rotterdam The Hague Airport (RTHA) – and supported by on-site handler Aviapartner – an historic three-month readiness test period got underway. The overall project was aimed at improving the baggage handling process at the airport through the use of intelligent autonomous vehicle technology.

In line with its forward-thinking approach, RTHA stood to gain valuable insights into the potential applications for innovative technologies, as well as improve its performance. Aviapartner wanted to benefit from the efficiencies of automatic sortation, and for its operatives to enjoy the positive impact of an ergonomic baggage loading process during flight make-up. For Vanderlande, the intention was to validate FLEET’s reliability in a live, real-world environment.

Meeting multiple objectives

“RTHA is a member of the Schiphol Group, which we all recognise as being one of Vanderlande’s key customers,” explains FLEET’s Director Sustainability & Strategy, Esther Kersten. “The trial marks the start of validating the benefits of FLEET for RTHA. They were looking to test the values of FLEET in regards to flexibility and efficiency, in combination with improved ergonomics for handlers in a live environment.

“FLEET’s scalability aligns with RTHA’s desire to have a solution that can match their capacity needs. Sustainability is also important to the airport and a strong reason why they wanted to proceed with being the first in the world to have FLEET in an operational environment.”

Another important stakeholder present throughout the trial period was Aviapartner, the official on-site baggage handler at Rotterdam. It also wanted to work with FLEET due to the proposed efficiency increases obtained through automatic sortation, and the improved ergonomic baggage loading process.

“For Vanderlande, it was the first time that we had such a system operational, so we wanted to learn as much as we could and harvest as much information as possible,” confirms FLEET’s Integration Manager, Erik van Meijl.

“Firstly, we wanted to check the robustness of the system in terms of how it would behave when real bags are used, rather than test luggage. Then, we wanted to know whether the solution matched our expectations in reality, what the system’s capacity was, and how it behaved during peak flows. Finally, we were interested in assessing how the airport and the handler interfaced with the system.”

A smooth installation

By using intelligent autonomous vehicle technology, FLEET replaces the need for fixed conveyors and sorting systems. Each individual vehicle carries a single bag and determines the most optimal route through an airport. Real-time track and trace of individual bags can also be facilitated, and FLEET offers a full end-to-end service solution.

Having already been built and tested in-house at Veghel (Vanderlande’s HQ in The Netherlands), the FLEET vehicles could be taken out of their shipping crates and put to use immediately. “Everyone shared an enthusiasm for such a unique project, and we had the system operational within the specified time period,” confirms Erik. “The installation was relatively straightforward and even on the first day, the vehicles could drive around their new home.”

The next step for the FLEET team was to determine the ideal route for the vehicles. Interestingly, Erik’s colleagues noticed that performance levels could be optimised simply by changing the routes of the units within the designated layout. To this extent, the team had originally predicted that five vehicles would be necessary to deliver the capacity expected by RTHA. However, thanks to FLEET’s flexibility and a minor change of route, only four vehicles were needed.

During the installation, Vanderlande adopted a standard project approach with corresponding milestones. These included the customer acceptance tests at the beginning of November 2018. “Since it was a trial, we decided to start with a few flights per day and increase the number of bags within a set time period,” adds Erik.

“At the end of every test, we sat together with RTHA and Aviaparter to review the results and decide what we should improve on next. Vanderlande also has a process engineer on site who conducts continuous system analysis, and we’re also training the relevant staff, so that they can use the system effectively.”

The benefits of automation with FLEET

Due to the standardised, flexible and pre-programmed components and technologies involved, commissioning and installation times were significantly reduced. FLEET’s flexibility also allowed the team to make further optimisations and last-minute changes when required without having any impact on live operations. One of the main advantages of FLEET is that system resets are easy to execute. If an error occurs, a handler can reset the vehicle and only one bag is ever affected, not the entire system.

In addition, due to the software involved, it is possible to harvest a high volume of data from FLEET from which to make further improvements. “We have another project in the USA, which marks the start of our central value centre,” adds Esther. “By monitoring and improving the process across different locations, our goal is to continuously improve the system’s design and functionality. This will help us to drive the operational performance of our customers.

“Whatever we learn from one location will have a positive impact on every other customer using FLEET. This also relates to the service model we offer. By learning from one site and improving the system, this will have favourable implications for every other site. By having this architecture, we can improve every day. At the current time, this only involves a handful of airports, but imagine if we had a comprehensive global network!”

FLEET is also allowing RTHA to realise its sustainable ambitions. “Every vehicle draws power from the solar panels fitted at the airport,” explains Esther. “These are connected to the charging stations so that only green energy is used to power the system. What we’re trying to achieve with FLEET also relates to the circular economy. This means that Vanderlande takes ownership of the vehicles for their whole lifetime, and will upgrade and recycle them. The ambition is to have zero waste in terms of materials.”

For Erik, FLEET’s energy efficiency is also an important aspect: “RTHA is an airport that has many peaks, but not so many flights overall. If the airport had a traditional conveyor system to transport one bag from A to B, every conveyor would need to run. However, by having a FLEET system and transporting one bag if necessary, only one vehicle is used. In terms of efficiency, RTHA only uses precisely what it needs.”

Looking ahead

Off the back of this landmark project, there were a number of notable achievements for the FLEET team. “The major highlight for me is that we were able to put this type of solution into the market, and then follow up by proving its capabilities in a live environment,” confirms Esther. “It’s such an important milestone, because we’ve gone from telling a theoretical story to offering tangible results and customer value. There were many hurdles, but every stakeholder worked hard to achieve an excellent result.”

In Erik’s opinion, the feedback from the customer has been satisfying: “It was enjoyable for me to work alongside a number of different parties to bring FLEET to life, and RTHA and Aviapartner are pleased with the way that the system is operating. For that reason we will continue to further test and improve FLEET at RTHA. We’re continuously learning on site and are confident that by starting small, increasing steadily, and integrating more components into the system, we will soon be able to execute more complex systems.

“The next deployment is already happening in the USA, where there are different regulations and operating procedures. This is also interesting to us in terms of product development. In addition, we want to further develop our innovative partnership approach and service proposition together with customers, and talk to them about the exciting possibilities FLEET could bring to their airports.”

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