New System Provides Real-Time Tracking For Parcels

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A new system that provides real-time, intelligent, end-to-end tracking and tracing for goods being transported around the world has been developed with the help of 2.5 million euros from the EUs Framework Programme.

ParcelCall brought together a consortium of leading European industrial and academic partners to create a system that operates across all borders and carriers whatever mode of transport is being used. The system utilises RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) technology, a Mobile Logistic Server (MLS) with GPS (Global Positioning System) and Thinking Tags that measure and monitor environmental conditions - a major benefit when transporting perishable goods.

Although many carriers in transport and logistics have had tracking and tracing systems in place, these only cover the individual carrier, says Professor Robin Williams, at the University of Edinburgh, who led ParcelCalls socio-economic research component. Now, with supply chains becoming more and more complex - often involving more than one carrier and multiple transport modes - there is a much higher demand for an across the board system. ParcelCall focuses on interoperability, open interfaces, and standardization in order to allow seamless tracking and tracing across the entire logistics and transportation chain.

So, with its open and scalable system architecture, a small trucking company could adopt the ParcelCall tracking and tracing services just as easily as a large national or international carrier. ParcelCall could also be extended easily by adding new server components.

The Mobile Logistic Server (MLS) - fitted with GPS receivers to provide accurate and secure global tracking and tracing - keeps track of individual items being transported inside a vehicle or container. This means it is aware of the identity, current location and status of all goods in the unit at all times even if a single item out of a large shipment gets lost, damaged, or takes a different route to the rest of the shipment.

The MLS then makes its information available to a network of fixed servers through mobile communication networks - on demand and on a real-time basis. The system can be programmed to actively alert the owner of the goods, or the transport operator, if the goods deviate from a predefined route, a delay occurs, or an alarm has been generated.

ParcelCall goes beyond mere item identification, adds Professor Williams. Sensitive, perishable and high-risk goods - such as pharmaceuticals, whose temperature needs to be monitored without interruption, or shock-sensitive electronic devices - will be equipped with Thinking Tags. These compact reusable devices are equipped with sensors, processing power, memory and are capable of active, two way radio communication. This means they can monitor their environmental conditions - such as temperature, humidity or shock - record a history of status information, including location, and measurement data, and actively send alerts or messages. Thinking Tags are usually associated with individual items rather than with a container or other transport unit, providing seamless end-to-end surveillance of status, location, and environmental data.

Thinking Tags will be particularly useful in providing invaluable information in the case of theft or loss, and help in settling liability issues if damage or mishandling has occurred.

This is an excellent example of how Framework Funding is being used to develop information technology systems that make our lives easier, says Peter Walters, FP6UKs National Contact Point for Information Society Technologies. I am confident that there will be considerable demand for ParcelCall from within the transport and logistics industry. It is also the type of system that may lend itself to be adapted at some time in the future for tracking and tracing required by other businesses.

The Framework Programmes are the EUs main vehicle for support of leading edge, internationally collaborative R&D. The current Framework Programme (FP6) runs until 2006 and organisations wanting free, easy to access, information on the 17.5bn of funding available within FP6 should log on to <http://fp6uk.ost.gov.uk> or call central telephone support on 0870 600 6080.

Professor Robin Williams believes the implications of the technologies developed and demonstrated by ParcelCall extend well beyond transport, saying: The whole area of logistics and product life-cycle management and ultimately the so-called Internet of things will benefit.

EU support for ParcelCall R&D allowed diverse players to learn about RFID and the convergence of Internet and mobile and wireless technologies. Our project evaluation showed that the key outcome was not a particular artefact but the opportunity the project afforded to exchange knowledge and learn between different communities: different technical domains, between science and engineering and social science, between technology supply and user industry.

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