'cool supply chain the ultimate aim'

The spy in the box tracking air cargo

The spy in the box tracking air cargo

On-Line Tracking, Cargo 2000 and other performance measurements of air cargo all aim to give shippers the reassurance that their airfreight shipments will arrive on time. Data loggers placed in the cargo can prove whether it was properly treated on route – for example kept at the prescribed temperature, or kept upright and not shaken.

But when performance does not live up to promises, such measures generally only tell the shipper about the problem after it has happened. Suppose they were truly able to track their cargo and discover how it was being treated in real time? How might that change the relationship between customer and airline?

With SENTRY FlightSafe, a service offered by OnAsset Intelligence, that prospect has become a reality. At its heart is a device, which transmits live data about the shipment to the shipper, via satellite or mobile telephone technology.

Shippers can choose to be updated as often as they like – every hour, every minute – not just about where the cargo is, but also its temperature, atmospheric pressure, humidity and whether the shipment has been opened or subjected to sharp movement.

The software can be configured to send out an alert if a specific event takes place – for example if the temperature drops below a certain level or if the box is dropped.

Potentially this could have a revolutionary impact on air cargo, as Adam Crossno, chief executive of OnAsset explains.

“Rather than discovering the problem later and making an insurance claim, you now have the ability to intervene and save the shipment. This is particularly useful for life sciences shipments where tolerances are very thin. The earlier you can intervene, the better chance you have of recovering the situation.”

Data logging and transmission of this kind is nothing new, and in trucking and sea freight has been the norm for quite some time. But in air cargo there has always been the barrier that a device cannot transmit on an aircraft in flight. OnAsset’s patented technology gets round this by enabling the device to sense when it is in proximity to an aircraft and cease transmitting, dispensing with the need for any human intervention.

Crossno does not go into great detail about how it does that, except that it uses several layers of sensors and software. “It does not rely on just one thing. It captures all kinds of information,” he says. “We spent many years perfecting this technology and testing it on aircraft.”

SENTRY FlightSafe has currently been approved for use by some 30 airlines – the latest being Cathay Pacific and Virgin Atlantic – and other examples include American Airlines, Delta and Southwest. Envirotainer is in the process of integrating the device into its active heating and cooling containers.

The product also has a Letter of No Technical Objection from the US FAA, who were consulted throughout its development, and OnAsset is on the FAA committee on portable electronic devices, and so fully up with the latest pol-icy in this area.

Shippers using the devices range from pharmaceuticals companies to movers of valuable goods. For the latter, SENTRY FlightSafe acts like a security guard, triggering an alert if a package is opened en route, and mapping its journey against predicted milestones, so the shipper can be warned if it has not arrived at a particular location at the expected time. “It can give you knowledge of heists minutes after they happen,” says Paul Rodwell, OnAsset’s head of international business development.

As well as alerting shippers to any potential problems, SENTRY FlightSafe is also giving shippers an independent means to monitor airline performance. They are, in effect, able to spy on what the airline is doing to their cargo behind closed doors.

Crossno denies that this will lead to more confrontation between customer and airline, however. “It has the net effect of bringing partners in the supply chain closer together,” he says. “We see from email exchanges that airlines are delighted to have a level of granularity that they never had before.”

There can even be a benefit for airlines, Rodwell points out, in that it removes the need for manual checking by airline staff and the need to push tracking information out to the shipper.

“It also demonstrates to the customer that the airline has confidence in their ser-vice, and is willing to understand what happens when there are problems and make things better for the next shipment.”

Certainly, if OnAsset is correct in its projections, then airlines will have to get used to this level of surveillance. Crossno says the number of devices in use is now approaching the tens of thousands, but he predicts millions in the next three to five years.

Currently the service costs around US$30-50 per month, per device, but Rodwell sees prices falling as the technology gets cheaper and the number of devices in use rises. “One thing we offer customers on long term contracts is the option to replace or upgrade the equipment over the life of a contract, so they don’t get stuck in a technology corner,” he says.

Devices currently have to be returned to origin to be re-used, although Rodwell insists that, as they are small and light, this is easily done. But Crossno says that disposable – or rather – recyclable devices are already under active development.

Taken together these two enhancements mean there is the potential for SENTRY FlightSafe devices to be used for piece-level tracking for ordinary shipments, realising the currently somewhat moribund goal of phase three of Cargo 2000.

“Our service is very like Cargo 2000,” Rodwell points out. “You can create a shipment programme, which then generates milestones, and has optimal timings for each stage. The system alerts you when the goods arrive and depart against those milestones, and you can set geolocation parameters to tell you if your shipment is outside them.”

Crossno says other ideas about how to use the devices are coming from customers all the time. “We have customers who use information from the devices to know when to send documents to the carrier, and others who are linking the data up to back-office systems such as invoicing in order to close the cash gap.

“Some customers are also looking at predictive analysis – looking to see which data sets normally precipitate late delivery. Once you know that, you can look for that pattern and see which shipments are tending towards having those issues, and move from reactive to proactive intervention to stop it happening.”

Shippers using the devices across multiple airlines will also be able to compare and contrast the performance of different carriers in some detail. Does one have better handling? Is a particular airport more likely to cause problems than others? The potential here is that a shipper could end up knowing more about the airline than the airline itself – not to mention also having better data than its forwarder.

It is a brave new world, and one, which has the potential to change air cargo in ways that are as yet to be forseen. “It is a really exciting place to be, and really exciting that the market is starting to see it as not just track and trace,” says Crossno.