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Agents control the network

Baggage conveyor systems at airports often carry up to 10,000 items of baggage per hour. Nevertheless, the cases have to be loaded onto the right airliner at the right time. Intelligent ‘routing agents’ steer the baggage without the need for complex computer systems.

Hustle and bustle at a major hub airport. The baggage from a delayed aircraft needs to be conveyed immediately to the right reclaim points. Thousands of passengers are checking in at the airline desks at the same time, while aircraft are taking off and landing every minute. To prevent chaos from breaking out, everything has to slot together neatly. It is all taken care of by experienced ground personnel, aided by reliable and intelligent information and material flow technology. In collaboration with the Chair of Material Handling and Warehousing (FLW) at the University of Dortmund, the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics IML in Dortmund has placed ‘routing agents’ at the nodes of an automatic baggage conveyor system for hub airports. These agents make on-the-spot decisions as to which way the baggage should be routed – a decisive step towards the ‘Internet of Things’. In the ‘Internet of Things’, packages, baggage items and pallets all have their own embedded intelligence: They communicate with one another and with the control units of the transport network, and automatically request the necessary resources. Communication between the agents is one of the focal points of research in the BMBF-funded project. In this particular case, some 2000 routing agents were deployed in a network. “We had to find a way of ensuring the reliable transmission of messages between the agents at peak load times,” says IML project manager Andreas Trautmann. The baggage conveyor system that was investigated comprises more than 12,000 conveyor elements with 1200 branches. These are supplemented by several stations for security checks and for manual encoding of baggage items that cannot be automatically identified. Agent-based control has various advantages: there is no need for a central management system with complex control logic and elaborate data processing in order to ensure the material flow. A deliberately simple program code ensures unimpeded flow at the crucial points of the baggage conveyor system. If the number of baggage items increases, the agents seek alternative routes and redirect the flow of baggage. “The experiment shows that the concept of the ‘Internet of Things’ is capable of assuring the logistical function of a large-scale agent-controlled conveyor system even through simple agents,” stresses Institute director Prof. Michael ten Hompel. Now, in their further research work, the scientists will press ahead with the use of multi-agent systems. Trautmann is certain: “Enhanced agent functions will enable us to outperform traditional control systems.”

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