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Sensors and Connectivity series: How will smart containers help us realise intelligent trains?

Smart Containers is a technology which enables to monitor the status of perishable food and to improve cargo security.

Latest update: February 2019

Damages and loss of cargo are currently major issues for shipping companies. The main areas of uncertainty for this technology are the maintenance of sensor cables and the security of the data sensors collect. Therefore, R&D is moving towards the development of new generation containers, with a lighter structure and embedded wireless sensors. Another research focus is the incorporation of IoT and blockchain technology to develop completely autonomous containers to improve cybersecurity.

What is Smart Containers technology?

Smart Containers are containers that are fitted with various sensors to provide a wide range of real-time data on the status of their cargo such as: location, temperature, humidity level, vibrations, impacts, attempted burglary, and customs clearance.  This technology could improve logistical speeds and provide valuable information about goods inside the containers e.g. real-time temperature data of perishable foods to monitor its status.

Smart container with embedded AC to control temperature and humidity

Is it already in use?

Smart containers are used in the transport and logistics industries. An example of this is the Maersk fleet of reefer containers outfitted with smart technology. The technology tracks and updates the container’s real-time location using a Wi-Fi modem and SIM card technology in conjunction with a satellite transmitter on their Line vessels to stream the data back to the different logistical teams around the world, allowing the company to monitor its status from a centralised system. This is especially pertinent to perishable commodities which are time sensitive and require precise temperature and atmospheric conditions. If the power goes off on the reefer or the conditions inside the container change, an entire container of goods can be spoiled.

Significant capital is lost by shipping companies every year due to pirated cargo. The security industry has integrated smart containers into intermodal freight transport. Installing electronic seals and sensors in containers which trigger alarms allows relevant authorities to ascertain the security status of the containers and their contents. This has helped companies avoid loss, damage or spoiling of goods.

How will it impact the rail industry?

Smart containers could positively impact the freight operations of the rail industry as the sensors within the containers allow the logistics and visibility of delivery to be improved. This mitigates transportation risks by helping to monitor cargo and prevent accidents or damage. Temperature sensors on reefer containers can be used to monitor temperature changes, allowing perishable food stock to remain fresh. Vibration and impact monitoring along with GPS tracking allows faults in the track to be identified, sending data of the exact location to maintenance. When accidents/track faults occur, rail will know in real time so contingency plans could be triggered instantly, reducing costs of setback. New lighter materials developed for smart shipping containers, typically carbon fibre composites, have the potential for increasing the payload per train without the need to enhance the infrastructure. These developments, combined with a network and algorithms, will allow optimisation of the capacity of the freight industry.

What should the rail industry do?

The industry could consider introducing smart containers in conjunction with big data architecture into the logistical processes. With this information, dispatchers could make more informed decisions on scheduling freight trains to increase capacity and to better maintain their freight wagons. This could increase reliability of their services. Furthermore, the industry could implement smart container technology into passenger carriages, so that data such as locations, delays, carriage capacity, temperatures etc. could be monitored. 

What R&D is underway and what uncertainties remain?

Companies are currently researching and developing integrated capacity of advanced composite materials to embrace the dual roles of structural integrity and housing for sensor devices. These containers could be up to 50% lighter than steel, reducing the energy required to transport them and consequently, the fuel consumption of the transport mode used. This will also help in the global challenge of reducing carbon emissions.  An example of this is the STEC project by JRC which hopes to address this by researching into composite materials, wireless sensor networks, embedded energy harvesting and signal processing. 

Rail industry applications are also being developed, such as by Bosch Mobility Solutions, who are creating a new condition monitoring system for railway freight.
Smart Containers Group and Capgemini aim to develop a completely autonomous container by employing blockchain technology. This, combined with the power of the IoT, will enable to track and monitor each container around the world and improve the cost, efficiency and security of goods transport. 

Advanced sensors can have high power requirements. If the containers they are attached to do not have enough energy sources of their own, the possibility of fitting them with sensors is limited. Therefore, companies are considering improved power generation solutions on board smart containers, such as low power energy harvesting equipment. Moreover, environmental sensor connections often demand long cables to be connected to a central controller for recording data which, in turn, requires significant routing and setup time. At the same time, cables and sensors are exposed to possible damages and, consequently, to malfunction or costly replacements.
There is uncertainty associated with cyber security of smart containers, as unauthorised third parties could intercept the location data, gaining access to high value cargo.  

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