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IoT at sea will revolutionise global supply chains

Wed 06 Sep 2017 by Martyn Wingrove

IoT at sea will revolutionise global supply chains
Container ships are at the centre of monitoring networks and supply chain digitisation

Technology based on the ‘internet of things’ (IoT) will ultimately allow maritime supply chain members to track individual container consignments precisely

Satellite tracking technology has evolved over the last decade and a half so that a cargo owner can track the position of a container and the ship it is on, while monitoring the condition of the cargo. The tracking technology uses sensors, wireless networks, transmitters and constellation of satellites, such as those operated by Orbcomm, which provide ship tracking and machine-to-machine (M2M) connectivity.

Orbcomm vice president Sue Rutherford predicts that in the near future shippers of fresh produce would be able to use a smartphone application to check on the location and condition of a single pallet of fruit inside one of 2,200 refrigerated containers on a 22,000 TEU container ship, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

“The latest developments hold out the promise of true end-to-end supply chain visibility across land and water,” she told Marine Electronics & Communications. It is a far cry from the early days of ship tracking using the Automatic Identification System (AIS), which became a mandatory requirement under IMO rules in 2002.

“The digitalisation of global shipping is well and truly underway, and the impact will be felt well beyond the high seas,” said Ms Rutherford. This is driven by the convergence of satellite, wireless and cellular communications for remote and real-time monitoring, she explained. “The internet of things (IoT), tracking devices and sensors, cloud platforms and big data analytics will transform ship management and operations.”

This couples broadband connectivity with onboard GSM wireless networks, IoT telematics and advances in sensors for monitoring of individual containers, trailers and their cargoes. “The potential impact on global maritime supply chains is tremendous,” she added.

"The potential impact on global maritime supply chains is tremendous"

Developments in container tracking have already saved shippers money in terms of preventing loss of perishable cargo. Maersk Line has already equipped nearly 300,000 refrigerated containers with remote tracking and temperature control devices and has outfitted its ships with cellular networks for onboard monitoring of these boxes, with data transferred ashore via L-band services. Regional US carrier TOTE Maritime has extended smart reefer box monitoring by equipping its ships with the latest GSM wireless network technology for monitoring containers at sea.

Costs of this connectivity are falling as ship operators can use VSAT, L-band, AIS and M2M satellite connectivity. “The new breed of on-vessel GSM networks deliver connectivity at a significantly lower cost than earlier generation technology, and give visibility both to crew and shore-side staff,” said Ms Rutherford.

She explained that a local area network should be set up on the vessel. This would “allow authorised users to view container status 24/7 and receive alerts and alarms on shipboard computers.” She continued: “This enables timely, targeted action in case of temperature deviations and equipment malfunction that could lead to cargo damage or loss and eliminates the need for periodic manual inspections.”

Where problems cannot be rectified on board, advance notification from ship to shore means that the right parts and technicians can be ready and waiting when the vessel berths.

"The visibility of vessels has significant implications for global trade and supply chain operations"

More has also been done with AIS data. “The visibility of vessels has significant implications for global trade and supply chain operations,” Ms Rutherford said. AIS was developed as a tool to aid vessel location, identification, collision avoidance and compliance but AIS data from Orbcomm feeds a growing array of commercial applications.

“Using AIS data, firms can take a ship’s position and apply complex algorithms to determine cargo flows and then compare this with historical data to find financial market mispricing,” she explained. “With commodity trading seeing daily fluctuations, one can envision a virtual maritime stock market.”

Ports such as Rotterdam, the Netherlands, use AIS data to monitor vessel arrivals, berthing and departure times accurately. “This can drive tremendous efficiencies for port and terminal operations, such as improving co-ordination of the myriad port service activities associated with each vessel call,” said Ms Rutherford.

More precise data on vessel arrival and departure could also have significant supply chain benefits, giving better advance visibility to shippers, hauliers and other parties co-ordinating complex and large-scale logistics. AIS data underpins a new breed of supply chain visibility engines, helping shippers and logistics providers to plan and manage cargo flows more effectively. This can be combined with container tracking and monitoring technology to revolutionise maritime logistics and global supply chains.

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