The logistics supply chain is an ever-evolving beast, unrecognisable from only a few years ago. The requirements of the end-user in every imaginable sector has placed further emphasis on the 24/7, 365 days a year business model, for the millions of goods that are transported around the world every day on the roads, rail, oceans and in the skies.
The customer now demands that their goods are delivered quicker than ever before, due to the increasing pressures placed on every stage of the supply chain. This is no more evident that in the worldwide logistics and transport sector, which is estimated to be worth €2.7 trillion.
While logistics suppliers hope for the best and plan for the worst, absolute visibility of the item's whereabouts is required at all times to recover the asset(s), when things do go wrong.
The Internet of Things has been at the heart of the drive to enhance efficiency and streamline operations in global logistics. With worldwide investment in the IoT forecast to reach $1.4 trillion by 2021, the opportunities to leverage this technology to innovate for the future is limitless.
With logistics companies constantly striving for total quality control of their goods, in multiple time zones and across varied landscapes and environments, the need to have absolute visibility of an item's whereabouts in transit is required. Intercontinental logistics often rely on satellites or cellular modems when travelling through multiple countries to communicate the location of goods, which can prove prohibitively expensive and power-thirsty.
Tracking an item at the start and end of a journey is no longer good enough to accurately track its whereabouts and position within the supply chain. For example, what is the option for tankers and freight ships in the middle of the ocean? Communicating with an IoT application when managing transcontinental logistics is not always possible; there's no guarantee that the device will instantly connect to the nearest available network, let alone automatically.
One solution is low-bandwidth messaging, using Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) technology. This technology can send tiny packets of data across the GSM network that is embedded across the world in 2G, 3G and LTE connections. This is commonly found in the typical mobile phone network, providing true ubiquitous connectivity for IoT devices.
Without any need to proactively link to a network, the device can automatically connect with a corresponding IoT application when in range of the nearest cell tower. This avoids disruption when moving between carriers on a cellular signal, ensuring worldwide connectivity.
As well as location, smart sensors can be programmed to communicate almost any type of information that can be carried across a low-bandwidth signal, such as humidity, temperature and pressure, avoiding the need to have multiple IoT devices that further clog the network.
The power issue is also circumnavigated, thanks to the way in which the devices can work. By sending small amounts of data when parameters change, or in this case when it reaches a specific part of its journey, its on/off set-up enables battery efficiency, and longevity is maximised. Instead of remaining on and transmitting data when not necessary, the device can be programmed to last not only months, but years.
In addition to low-power global connectivity, a major advantage of USSD is security. Because it uses core GSM signaling, data is not actually communicated using the internet (TCP-IP), greatly improving cyber security through having no need to use IP addresses between devices and a connectivity platform.
For devices which are remotely connected via a wireless network, the issue of securely bridging the ‘air gap' between an operational technology and IT systems, such as the cloud, is a major challenge to the safe transfer of data.
This is achieved through the reliability of USSD technology. It establishes a direct communication channel between the sender and recipient, which significantly reduces the risk of interception and lowers the likelihood of outages.
With an increasing volume of connected devices, allied to a growing number of goods being transported across the globe, the opportunities to allow this to happen is only growing. According to Gartner, the number of connected devices around the world was predicted to rise to 8.4 billion in 2017, and 20.4 billion by 2020.
When security of information is compromised, the pinpoint precision required at every stage of the supply chain is severely impacted. This is demonstrated by the upcoming IATA Resolution 753 for consumer baggage that, when enforced in June 2018, will require every item that is checked in by an airline to be tracked at four points along its journey, through smart sensor technology.
With tens of millions of bags placed in the hold of an aircraft every year, the number of ‘connected devices' suddenly introduced on a cellular network will grow by an unimaginable number. This is not good news for airline operators, who need absolute visibility to recover the estimated 21.6 million bags that were mishandled in 2016.
This type of intelligent connectivity utilises the principles of the Internet of Things, yet without any ‘internet', minimising dependency on the existing network that provides a secure, ubiquitous connection that utilises an established infrastructure. Going back to basics in an increasingly technological and complex field could save logistics providers considerable time and money.
Neil Hamilton is VP of business development at Thingstream
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