Wireless Sensor Networks enhancing the efficiency and safety of logistics operations

Management of cargo freight such as sea containers is an essential element of world economic systems. The transport and delivery of goods from continent to continent and between locations on-land enable business growth and facilitate population access to necessary goods and consumer items. However, mismanagement and accidents with transport containers cause significant impact to the economy, individual businesses, workers, communities and the environment. Libelium’s Waspmote sensors can be used to monitor and control logistics operations.

Each year, more than 100 million shipping containers circulate the globe, transporting goods in each of the world’s seven seas. Shipping containers transport up to 90% of the world’s non-bulk cargo. Inter-modal transport then connects these containers by road, rail and air freight networks to deliver goods to all points of the globe.

Fig. 1.- Value of World Goods Exports by Country


International logistics operations involving cargo freight move upwards of 5 or 6 million containers every day. According to Bruce Simpson, from the European Parliament Committee on Transport and Tourism, 10,000 containers are lost at sea each year, with 2,000 containers lost in European waters alone. “These containers are a menace to navigation, they could pollute the seas with both toxic and non-toxic materials, and they leave local authorities with large clean-up costs,” he told a debate of the European Parliament in October 2010.

Main goals: monitor logistics and minimise economic losses

In addition to containers lost at sea, other logistics challenges can destroy the value of goods being transported, impact negatively on the economy, or cause damage to communities and areas. Breaches that alter the temperature of containers or that introduce water into cargo can destroy the value of the goods being transported. Containers can be stored incorrectly next to each other such that flammable goods are placed in close proximity to dangerous goods or containers shipping toxic items, increasing risks in the event of an accident. Land movement of containers can be transported along unsafe road routes resulting in spills or container breaches that destroy the environment or cause damage to urban or rural areas.

Logistics companies are turning to M2M solutions that incorporate GPS and GPRS/3G technologies to minimise these risks and strengthen the economic value of freight movement internationally. According to the Harbor Research Inc study Pervasive Internet and Smart Services Market Forecast, 32% of the GPRS/3G module market will be used in logistic applications, generating $1,360 million dollars in industry revenue.

Wireless sensor networks to monitor freight shipping

The progress of machine-to-machine communications technology and wireless sensor networks offer a differentiating factor for logistics companies. Not only can we now locate and track a package from origin to destination, but we can monitor its transportation conditions throughout the journey. If there was an excess of moisture in the container, if goods have been opened or inspected along the line, if there have been temperature fluctuations, we can now know when, where, and how it occurred.

Fig. 2.- Waspmote sensor device


Waspmote wireless sensors have a number of characteristics that make them ideal for logistics usage. The motes’ wireless communication capacities, autonomous power and small size allow connection of goods to the Internet to be maintained for months. The Waspmote devices have an internal lithium battery that allows them to run for months and therefore be used in an efficient energy management logistics system. Moreover, in cases of container falls, fires, exposure to floods or other risks, Waspmotes can send SMS alerts to the client, transportation company or law enforcement to call for immediate assistance.

There are four main advantages of using Waspmotes and wireless sensor technologies in logistics operations:

  • Consistent tracking of goods throughout the transportation chain.
  • Detection of unexpected container openings.
  • Monitoring of transport conditions.
  • Identification of storage incompatibilities.

Consistent tracking of goods throughout the transportation chain

Waspmote can allow cargo owners, transportation companies, and end receiving customers to know where goods are located at all stages of the transportation process. In cases of sensitive goods transportation, such as with stones and precious metals, dangerous goods, and humanitarian aid, this information is critical. GPS sensors allow for location monitoring at all times while GPRS/3G allows for the sending alerts, thus demonstrating Waspmote’s advantages over other types of vehicle tracking systems. You can program the route you should follow in the SD card and compare it with the one being travelled. In this way, you can send SMS alerts where the driver diverges from the set route. In cases where the GPRS/3G coverage is in remote areas, the SD card can store coordinates of the route taken for further analysis.

Fig. 3.- Waspmote GPRS and GPS Boards


Detection of unexpected container openings

A light sensor can be placed within a container to determine when it has been opened. Waspmote can be programmed to acknowledge estimated opening hours, and check if opening times correspond with scheduled inspections, generating alerts by GPRS/3G when outside estimated times. All Waspmote devices incorporate a RTC (real time clock), allowing accurate recording of the date and time of all events that occur.

Fig. 4.- Waspmote Events Sensor Board with PIR, temperature, luminosity and vibration sensors


Monitoring of transport conditions

In some cases, containers carry humidity and temperature sensitive-items such as food, pharmaceuticals or art. Adding Waspmote sensors to measure these environmental variables can be essential to ensuring that goods are managed and unspoiled during transportation processes. If goods are fragile, registering shock and vibration impacts can assist in identifying responsible authorities in the case of insurance claims. All Waspmote devices include a 3-axis accelerometer to detect such vibrations. The combination of GPS, RTC, SD and sensors can register each event’s exact location, date and time, and the value captured by the sensor.

Fig. 5.- Waspmote Gases Sensor Board with O2, CO, CO2 and other gas sensors


Identification of storage incompatibilities

Finally, the motes can act as smart tags. Beyond the passive behaviour of identifying the content of what is being freighted, Waspmotes can actively exchange information with other pallets or containers stored around it by using RFID and NFC technologies. In this way, warning messages can be generated if, for example, a pallet of dangerous goods is placed side by side with flammable materials.

Fig. 6.- Waspmote RFID Module


All stakeholders in the logistics chain can benefit from wireless sensor technologies:

  • Cargo owners can achieve greater control over their freight.
  • Insurance companies can collect accurate data to assist in identifying responsible authorities for compensation or repair.
  • Logistics and transport companies can improve competitiveness of their operations, learn from the data to improve route travel patterns and transport conditions, and increase their service offerings.
  • Telecommunication operators can collaborate with logistics stakeholders to provide seamless communication management of the wireless sensors. In addition, 3G special rates can be created to be used in these M2M networks.

Throughout this logistics chain, Libelium can offer hardware and software integration solutions.

If you are interested in Waspmote, we will be glad to help you to design your system. You can request for a quotation of Waspmote here.