Robotic cargo system will triple Yokota hub's capacity

From left: Mechanized material handling system manaager Dean Labdon, quality control manager Yasuyuki Kobayashi and air terminal manager Ernie Weber check out a massive robot that can sort and store pallets at Yokota Air Base.


By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 10, 2014

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — A pair of giant yellow robots powering up at Yokota Air Base will triple cargo capacity at the U.S. military’s busiest air transport hub in the Pacific, officials say.

The 68-foot-tall machines — dubbed HAL and Dave after the computer and astronaut in the science-fiction film “2001: A Space Odyssey” — are capable of sorting and storing hundreds of pieces of cargo inside a four-story warehouse at the base in suburban Tokyo.

They will increase the air hub’s indoor cargo storage capacity from 99 pallets to 265, 374th Airlift Wing Vice Commander Col. Clarence Lukes Jr. said.

The robots — or “elevated transfer vehicles” — use sensors to weigh and create 3D images of cargo as it arrives. Pallets stamped with barcodes feed the robots and load planners critical information, according to Dean Labdon, manager of the “mechanized material-handling system” at Yokota.

“If you are looking for cargo, you can pull up a picture of it and see how much it weighs, what’s in it and where it’s headed,” he said. “I can sit at my computer and build a complete load for an aircraft.”

The robots configure outbound cargo depending on which aircraft are on the flight line and where they’re headed. When an aircraft is getting ready to depart, the robots retrieve cargo from storage and send it out to loading bays in sequence, Labdon said.

Electronic screens above the bays show airmen which aircraft each pallet is headed for and the order in which it should be loaded, Yokota air terminal manager Ernie Weber said.

“The system stores the pallets based on where they need to go, be it Okinawa, Korea or wherever,” Weber said. “It separates pallets containing hazardous materials, and it remembers where things are. If we have an aircraft that is headed to California, it will bring out all the cargo bound for California.”

The Yokota robots are based on civilian systems used by freight companies such as DHL Express and FedEx and similar to machines already at working at Narita and Haneda airports in Tokyo and at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Weber said.

During construction, 150 airmen, 11 U.S. civilians and 80 Japanese workers are training to work with the robots, he said. Until the robots come online, loading aircraft at Yokota will remain labor intensive, with airmen stacking cargo using forklifts and, often, storing it outside under plastic sheeting for protection from the elements.

The robotic system — which looks a bit like a large vending machine — allows load planners to do everything on a computer, Weber said. The system should help cut the load time for a 747 freighter from 4 ½ to 6 hours to just over an hour.

Arizona State University engineering professor Braden Allenby said the cargo-sorting robots are part of a trend toward more automation in the military.

In Afghanistan, the Marine Corps has used robotic helicopters to deliver cargo to isolated operating bases. Private companies such as Amazon are experimenting with drones to get packages to customers.

Allenby said the technology to build robotic air freighters and to load and unload them with robotic trucks is developing rapidly. The major challenge is getting buy-in from logistics managers.

“The technology probably won’t be a problem,” he said.

It might be possible to hack robotic logistics systems, but the military would be less concerned about terrorists tampering with an aircraft’s load and more focused on sophisticated adversaries such as China or Russia, which might try to disrupt an entire logistical system, Allenby said.

Yokota is the U.S. Pacific Command’s busiest cargo hub. More than a third of PACOM cargo and 110,000 passengers go through the base each year, Weber said, adding that the extra cargo capacity would be useful in an emergency like the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, or if the U.S. effort to rebalance military forces to the Pacific became more intense.

In the past two years, the number of flights has risen by almost a third, Weber said, but cargo volumes have remained steady because smaller military aircraft have replaced large commercial freighters.

The new robots can send cargo earmarked for ground shipment to another new warehouse the size of two football fields with enough cool storage to hold several frozen elephants and a vault where classified or valuable items can be secured.

Yokota is also adding a massive gantry crane that can help unload items weighing as much as 70,000 pounds. When the Navy recently flew in a 58,000-pound replacement propeller shaft for one of its vessels at Yokosuka, an expensive rented crane was needed to hoist it onto a truck, Weber said.

Yasuyuki Kobayashi, a Sanki Engineering quality-control manager, said the $32 million project is due to be operational in January.

Twitter: @SethRobson1

A new crane will allow cargo handlers at Yokota Air Base to offload massive air freight items such as a 58,000-pund propellor shaft for a Navy ship at Yokosuka.

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