Your browser is not supported. Please update it.

1 November 2019

Trio of container tracking deals catches cellular IoT eyes

A tidbit we picked up recently is that the global export volume of containerized shipping has increased 4x in the past twenty years. Asset tracking has always been a prized IoT use case, and three deals have cropped up in the past week that suggest that the market is flourishing.

Asset tracking is a difficult balancing act for the LPWAN side of things. If the asset you want to track is of a high enough value, then the cost of changing batteries regularly or paying extra for SLA-backed cellular and satellite connectivity won’t be a burden for you.

LPWAN technologies have always stressed the long battery life that the protocols enable as a key selling point, but in asset tracking, this is not such a concern. In devices like environmental sensors or meters, the truck roll costs of sending a technician out to the device to change a battery could scupper the business plan. However, that truck roll cost is nowhere near such a pressing concern in asset tracking, as these assets pass through distribution centers with enough regularity that changing out batteries can be worked into the business model.

So then, from an LPWAN perspective, the primary motivator in asset tracking is the low price points that the hardware can facilitate – enabling a given budget to stretch by an order of magnitude, to many thousands of devices, instead of many hundreds, for instance. Of course, this then introduces the whole chicken-or-egg problem of coverage and scale, but worse, it brings LPWAN into conflict with the established RFID trackers – where the existing RFID ecosystem could be augmented to provide what the LPWAN crowd would like to offer.

All of this is to say that things are still quite messy in the IoT world, when it comes to mass adoption of asset tracking hardware. There are clear examples at each extreme, with fully-kitted trackers to guarantee coverage in all locations (satellite, L-LPWAN, U-LPWAN), where the value of the asset justifies this expense, all the way down to paying peanuts for Sigfox tracking for somewhat disposable pallets.

At the higher-end of the scale is a new contract that Marshall Aerospace and Defense Group just announced, where it will be using AT&T’s Global SIM and Control Center offerings to provider container tracking to the Dutch Army. To give you a sense of the value of the contract, only around 1,400 containers are going to be connected over the next five years, and while no dollar-figure is being given for the deal, AT&T doesn’t issue press releases for small fry.

The Dutch Army wants to track Command and Control (C&C) systems, medical containers, workshops, basic stores units, and controlled atmosphere units. The deal is part of a major update program being carried out by the Dutch Army, which has a focus on support equipment and vehicles. AT&T is not saying anything about the exact IoT offerings being used, and won’t answer even a basic set of questions from us on the matter.

“Being able to track and monitor the containers added another dimension to this important contract for the Dutch Army,” said Steve Nokes, Project Director DVOW at Marshall Aerospace and Defense Group. “We are delighted to be delivering these container systems as a result of a rapid development and manufacturing program, and to offer this enhanced service to our customer thanks to the global solution delivered by the team at AT&T.”

The second bit of news to catch our eye came from Traxens, which selected AVSystem for an asset tracking partnership. Traxens provide supply chain visibility services, mostly geared towards industrial customers, using its own hardware and a suite of supporting software. You might have come across its Internet of Big Things branding, which is only slightly less irritating than the thankfully now-dead Internet of Everything moniker.

In this deal, Traxens will be using AVSystem’s Coiote IoT Device Management offering, which incorporates Lightweight M2M (LwM2M) to sift the plethora of data spat out by these connected devices. We’re big fans of LwM2M, which is maintained by OMA SpecWorks – the body that came around through the merger of the Open Mobile Alliance and the IPSO Alliance.

“What’s unique about Lightweight M2M is that it’s constantly evolving, yet at the same time preserving its lightweightedness. With its 1.1 version we were introduced to fundamental changes, such as new transport bindings like TCP or non-IP data delivery featuring 3GPP CIoT, as well as LoRaWAN. A new 1.2 release is already being planned and includes even more enhancements and optimizations; suffice to say, it will surely secure LwM2M’s position as a strong challenger among IoT standards for telemetry and device management,” said Borys Godowski, sales director at AVSystem.

Traxens also popped up in the Netherlands, bringing our trio full circle, by joining IBM and the Port of Rotterdam in the Container 42 project, specifically joining the We Are 42 consortium that has developed a connected container that it wants to use to show off the capabilities of IoT tracking systems.

The group has outfitted a container with a suite of environmental sensors, which will track vibration, acceleration, position, and ambient temperature, humidity, and air pollution. It is being put on a two-year jaunt around the globe, with Traxens providing some of these sensors.

Also housed in and on the container is equipment from other project members, including Intel and Cisco, and solar panels will be providing power for the devices. CMA CGM, Maersk and MSC have all signed up as carriers, with the container due to hop between their networks. Rotterdam is looking to become something of an authority on advanced shipping and port operations, and Container 42 is just the latest in a series of tests. Hamburg is the other big name in the smart port game.