Wayne Rash is a technology and science writer based in Washington.
It’s an unfortunate reality when you’re shipping goods to your customers, but things sometimes get lost. Normally, such losses are insured, but the problem is bigger than that, because your customers depend on the products you’re shipping. Not delivering is a good way to lose customers.
Fortunately, it’s easy to track some shipments, especially if you use services such as FedEx or the U.S. Postal Service. Their tracking services are usually accurate within a few hours, so if your shipment doesn’t arrive when promised, you can find out about it, and ship it again within a few hours.
Most of our IoT business is designed around a device about the size of a postage stamp
But that’s not the case with all shipments. Ship a container full of your products from a factory in Asia or from the other coast, and it could take days or weeks before you know that something has happened and it won’t be delivered as promised.
For domestic rail, barge or truck shipping, there are a number of tracking devices available that will send out the GPS coordinates of your shipment periodically using cellular networks. These are cheap and effective, but they’re limited to transportation where there’s cell service. Move more than a couple of miles offshore, or move your shipment through unpopulated areas in the US or Canada, and your shipment is invisible while it’s there.
Satellite communications provider Iridium has a solution. Their constellation of polar-orbiting satellites is able to locate your shipment nearly anywhere in the world and keep you updated as to its location.
“Over the last 15 years or so we’ve been developing a range of technologies to offer a different range of services,” said Tim Last, vice president and general manager of Iridium’s IoT business. “Most of our IoT business is designed around a device about
the size of a postage stamp.”
Iridium puts tracking devices into the IoT category, Last said. These devices also include communications devices for other IoT applications beyond tracking.
“There’s a huge number of devices,” Last said, and they’re made by a number of manufacturers. “Garmin is an example,” he said, “We have devices on trucks, vessels, buoy systems and aircraft.”
The devices used to track shipping containers and other types of movable assets are tiny, battery-operated devices not much bigger than a pencil eraser that can be placed out of sight, but which can automatically report its GPS position. Some of these devices can monitor the health of the container itself, such as when a refrigerated container loses temperature control or when a container is opened during transit.
Similar devices can be mounted on trucks so they can report the actual position of the truck in real time. This allows the company to determine whether the truck is being driven on an appropriate route at an appropriate speed.
Knowing where your shipments are means that you can keep your customers updated as to when they should expect delivery. It can also alert you if your shipment disappears or is tampered with during shipping.
While the use of containerized freight has dramatically cut shipping losses, especially losses from international shipping, containers are sometimes lost or misdirected, and frequently they’re broken into and their contents stolen. Containers can be lost, at least temporarily, when the freight car they’re loaded on gets shunted into a siding, and forgotten, or when the truck they’re on breaks down.
When this happens, a tracking system such as those from Iridium can immediately pinpoint the missing shipment, where it can be recovered and put back in motion.
With other losses, such a tracking system will at least tell the shipper that it’s time to put in an insurance claim and then replace the shipment. This can happen when a container is lost overboard while the ship it’s on loses it during a storm, or more rarely, sinks. Without such tracking it can be days or weeks before the loss of the container is discovered, during which time your customer is probably selling someone else’s products.
Obviously, there’s a lot you can do with satellite tracking besides monitoring containers and trucks. For example, you can monitor scientific buoys, underwater remotely operated vehicles and oil and gas underwater exploration vehicles. Jeff MacIntyre, director of business development for Xeos Technologies said that while the satellite devices don’t work on the bottom of the ocean, they do when the devices to which they are attached come to the surface.
“They’re supposed to stay on the bottom of the ocean,” MacIntyre said, “but they might come loose.” If that happens, he said, the owners will be notified.
MacIntyre said that Xeos makes the tracking devices for a variety of scientific uses as well as for the oil and gas industry. The company’s sensors are even on the Wave Glider, an autonomous, wave powered, data gathering platform from Liquid Robotics that travels for up to a year at a time.
The key to why the Iridium sensors work like they do, meaning operating remotely for long periods of time, is that they can report their positions using only a few bytes of data each time. Adding other conditions such as a tamper alert or a temperature reading ads only a byte or two more. This allows Iridium to pass the information back to the company it’s partnering with in a timely manner, which in turn allows near-real-time reporting.
By reporting in such a timely manner you can stay in control of your shipment, and meet your customer’s needs.