Smart dolly is calling

Intelligent positioning system for airport ground equipment

A normal day at a large German airport: towing tractors flit to and fro across the airfield with one or more trailers – or dollies – in tow. The dollies transport baggage and freight and distribute consumable supplies. Yet quite a few of these trailers will be left standing abandoned on the airport apron and in the adjacent buildings.

» At a large airport there may be hundreds or even thousands of dollies just parked up somewhere «, explains Ralf Herzog, Managing Director of Blumenbecker Technik. The upshot: lots of searching by the tractor driver, particularly when a specific trailer has to be found. Well, Blumenbecker and the Magdeburg-based Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation (IFF) are now working together to change all this.

Blumenbecker has been designing and building airport ground equipment for more than 30 years, as well as undertaking repair and maintenance work. The specialist manufacturer of airport dollies, passenger stairs and so on is now collaborating with the research team led by the Hon.-Prof. Dr.-Ing. Klaus Richter of the Fraunhofer IFF on the development of an intelligent tracking system for airport ground equipment.

Targeted information transfer

At the core of the new system are radio sensors that are affixed to the dollies. These GSE trackers record the exact position and status of the dollies and transmit this information in real-time to a central control station where the data from all the trailers is compiled.

The system knows the exact whereabouts of each individual dolly, whether it is parked-up or coupled to a tractor and whether it has a payload or is empty. The system transmits the information to the tractor drivers out on the airfield who are then able to head for the dolly they require.

Market ready by the autumn of 2018

A pilot project has now been running at Leipzig Airport since February to test the intelligent tracking system in a valid field trial. Some 30 airport ground units were fitted with radio transmitters and the associated radio technology. The new product is expected to be on the market by the autumn of 2018.

Video: Intelligent positioning system
Smart Dolly

3 Questions to... Hon.-Prof. Dr.-Ing. Klaus Richter

Hon.-Prof. Dr.-Ing. Klaus Richter Head of the competence team for materials handling engineering and systems at the Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation (IFF),  Head of the Department of Materials Handling Engineering at the University of Magdeburg.


1. Alternative tracking systems have problems with buildings. How does the Smart Dolly perform in this respect?

"That is true, GPS-based tracking systems do not operate reliably when close to large buildings. Quite often the radio connection is lost completely. This is why the Smart Dolly also uses local detection technology that determines the position by measuring the field strength. The location coordinates can therefore  be reliably recorded at all times, even if the dolly is close to or actually inside an enclosed building. Then there is the energy-saving LoRa wireless technology from the internet of things, which has a large operating range and can guarantee long-term data transfer to the control centre in real-time. "

2. Can you tell us in quite specific terms what benefits the Smart Dolly can offer airport operators and service providers?

"The intelligent tracking system allows an airport's logistical processes to take place in a much more structured way than before. And that is hugely important in today's world of increasing air traffic. If you cannot build new airport terminals, or new runways for take-off and landing, then you have to use the existing infrastructure as efficiently as possible. Smart Dollies can help out here. Even the maintenance and repair schedules benefit from the smart factor built into the trailers. Operating profiles are drawn up on the basis of the submitted data and these establish the individual workloads and calculate the next maintenance appointment for each dolly. Such a targeted servicing routine safeguards the long-term reliability and functionality of the equipment and helps save on resources."

3. Can intelligent tracking technology be transferred to other sectors?

"Absolutely. At the moment we are helping a company to develop intelligent plastic pallets. By tagging the reusable pallet units it will be possible to achieve seamless goods tracing from the production line to the warehouse and on to the customer. Empties management can also be optimised with the help of tracking and tracing technology.  Stable plastic pallets eventually find their way into open pallet pools."