Next generation asset trackers monitor the condition of fragile cargoes

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Supply chain and logistics systems are duty-bound to safely deliver valuable cargoes to their final destinations, but this is often no mean feat. Freight getting damaged in transit is all too common, with poor handling, incorrect packaging, exposure to adverse environmental conditions, and most frequently impact the main culprits, says Alf Helge Omre, business development manager Asset Tracking, Nordic Semiconductor.

When that cargo happens to be as fragile, and as precious, as a box of trays filled with glass vials storing thousands of COVID-19 vaccine doses it’s fair to say a failed journey could cost not only a lot of money, but human lives as well.

To protect the world’s health against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, tens of billions of delicate vaccine doses will need to be frozen and transported to every corner of the globe. This mammoth task to immunise populations is now underway.

According to Scientific American magazine, U.S. companies Pfizer and Moderna are ramping up production and distribution of their messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine products; 1.3 billion doses of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine and 500 million to 1 billion doses of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine are set to be distributed in 2021.

Yet that’s only the beginning; the logistics challenge in moving vaccines far and wide is made much harder because they don’t travel well. In addition to their fragility, vaccines also need to be stored and shipped at low temperatures (-20˚C for Moderna’s mRNA vaccine and -70˚C for the equivalent Pfizer vaccine). If either vaccine is exposed to elevated temperatures at any part of the supply chain, even if quickly refrozen, they become ineffective.

Relying on wireless technologies

The critical rollout of COVID-19 vaccines to many developed countries is providing a valuable stress test for the world’s logistics systems. Logistics companies are increasingly turning to advanced wireless asset tracking solutions; this new generation of products incorporates sensors to ensure fragile cargoes not only arrive when needed but are well looked after throughout the trip. For example, the companies tasked with shipping the Pfizer are wireless temperature monitors and GPS locators as part of the vaccine-shipping package.

Tracking and monitoring products based on Bluetooth LE offer a good solution for overseeing COVID-19 vaccine cold chains (as well as many other industrial asset tracking applications). Bluetooth LE wireless devices equipped with thermocouples and accelerometers can be placed in cold boxes and refrigerated containers to monitor and record temperatures and impacts. And because the sensors are relatively inexpensive, a monitoring device can be dedicated to each box.

Bluetooth LE tech’s smartphone interoperability offers sensor configuration and monitoring from a mobile app. Impact and temperature excursions can be flagged and, for audit purposes, the data recorded during the delivery’s entire trip from drug maker to healthcare provider can be downloaded to the smartphone (or other gateway device) and from there to the Cloud.

For example, Shinyei Technology’s TempView GT002-T-DF temperature logging unit uses Nordic Bluetooth LE technology to improve the reliability of vaccine transportation and logistics by monitoring and reporting vaccine temperature during storage and distribution. The solution is being used in Japan for the rollout of the Moderna vaccine.

But Bluetooth LE vaccine tracking does have limitations. For one, data can’t be sent to the Cloud without an interim gateway device. That problem can be overcome by instead using cellular IoT. Available in two versions LTE-M (which is suited to assets on the move) and NB-IoT (for applications that demand the longest battery life) the wireless technology leverage mature infrastructure to enable direct Cloud connectivity and feature long battery life, kilometre range, reliability, high quality of service (QoS), scalability and security.

Cellular IoT and Bluetooth LE are not interoperable, so cellular IoT monitoring solutions often include a complementary Bluetooth LE SoC to communicate with the cargo’s local monitoring network and which then passes on the information to the cellular IoT device via a wired connection. Cellular IoT products tend to be relatively more expensive and use more battery power when operating than Bluetooth LE sensors, so a common strategy is to use one cellular device as a gateway to the Cloud for multiple sensors.

Prototyping platforms point the way

Designing a cargo monitoring product that combines short range and cellular IoT wireless technologies is a tough engineering task. But help comes in the form of rapid prototyping platforms such as Nordic Semiconductor’s Nordic Thingy:91.

The Thingy:91 combines Nordic’s ultra-compact cellular IoT solution, the nRF9160 low power SiP with GPS and integrated multimode LTE-M/NB-IoT modem, with the nRF52840 high-end Bluetooth LE SoC. The product’s cellular IoT communication can be interleaved elegantly with GPS positioning acquisition making it perfect for precision location and monitoring of valuable cargoes. The Thingy:91 includes sensors to gather data about movement, temperature, humidity, air quality, air pressure, color and light intensity information that can be easily downloaded for local or remote analysis.

Another example of a reference design for wireless asset tracking solutions is Ericsson’s ARDESCO (Approved Reference Design for Ericsson and Sigma Connectivity), co-developed with Sigma Connectivity, which employs Nordic’s nRF9160 and nRF52840 to provide cellular IoT and Bluetooth LE connectivity for a wide range of indoor and outdoor IoT designs.

By combining wireless technologies, next-generation asset trackers will not only be able to precisely track the location of valuable assets but also monitor fragile cargoes like vaccines and other valuable shipments for their entire journey. That give those cargoes a much greater chance of arriving at the end of their long journeys unscathed.

The author is Alf Helge Omre, business development manager Asset Tracking, Nordic Semiconductor.

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