Using wireless tech to track goods in transit
Sophisticated technology is now on hand to track goods in transit, not only instruct where a parcel is on its journey but also to log and report what conditions and events it has been subjected to.
Billions of dollars of goods are damaged during transit each year, and working out who should pay is a question that keeps insurers and their lawyers busy.
Take Amazon as an example - arguably the world’s most valuable brand and the gold standard in e-commerce. The company shipped an estimated five billion packages last year. Approximately a quarter of all items bought online was returned; 21 percent due to the item arriving damaged. That's a sizeable chunk of the almost $38 billion the company spent on shipping costs in 2019. Add to that the costs of replacement goods.
Reducing transit damage
Reducing the incidence of transit damage would save Amazon and countless other shippers a lot of money. But accidents will happen and identifying who is responsible and who should pay is equally big business for insurers and their lawyers.
The main reasons for freight getting damaged in transit are usually a result of poor handling, incorrect packaging, exposure to adverse environmental conditions—like excesses of temperature or humidity—and most commonly of all, impact. The challenge is establishing at what point in a parcel’s journey the damage occurred. After all, it will have passed through countless pairs of hands, and potentially multiple modes of transport, between the shipper’s fulfillment center and the recipient’s address.
Technology is the answer
One solution is the use of active, battery-powered RFID tags. They can function as beacons to provide live data on the cargo location and can also support sensors that measure and transmit environmental data such as temperature, humidity and light. However, they require expensive infrastructure to relay the data to the Cloud.
Alternatively, the data can be stored in the RFID tag’s memory, enabling access to the sensor data once a consignment reaches its destination, but again, cost is problematic. An active RFID tag can range from $5 to $15, and they are typically used to track larger assets like vehicles and cargo containers, rather than individual packages.
Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) receivers can also be paired with sensors and a long-range radio transceiver or cellular modem to enable live tracking of freight via the Cloud. But this is no more economical than active RFID, and thus restricted to essential applications.
The cellular IoT solution
Cellular IoT—an LPWAN technology supported by two versions, LTE-M and NB-IoT—offers a compelling alternative. Devices based on this technology, such as Nordic Semiconductor’s nRF9160 low power SiP with integrated LTE-M/NB-IoT modem and GPS, can easily be teamed with Bluetooth LE transceivers and then paired with relatively inexpensive Bluetooth LE-powered sensors. In so doing, they provide the ability to live track and monitor the condition of goods anywhere within range of one of the world’s five million cellphone towers.
Read more: What is Cellular IoT?
As the cost of such devices falls, consumers can live track the whereabouts of their parcels, the likes of Amazon will be able to see precisely where in its supply chain a package was dropped, fell, or was subjected to conditions that required it to be returned.
Monitoring environmental parameters
One company pioneering this technology is Norwegian asset tracking and monitoring specialist Meshtech. The company has released an environmental asset tracker combining cellular IoT and Bluetooth LE technologies. It is designed to provide perishable goods suppliers and logistics companies with end-to-end ‘live’ visibility of perishable goods in transit.
The device continuously monitors environmental parameters and integrates sensors to determine whether something has been mishandled. The data is relayed to the Cloud every thirty minutes. This provides proof of liability in the event of a compensation claim and allows corrective action to be taken en route to save a perishable consignment before it is spoiled.
Given the scale of the issue and the billions of dollars involved, asset tracking and freight handling are emerging as a prime early adopter of cellular IoT technologies. The increase of online sales as a response to the COVID-19 lockdown is proving the need more than ever.