Millions of trucks, freight trains and cargo ships are on the move around the world each day. Combined, they account for more than 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions and consume around a third of total energy consumption. Wastefully, many of those vehicles are travelling empty.
Despite efforts to improve freight transport efficiency, a cargo truck plying Europe's roads will currently still spend around half of its working life empty - returning from a delivery or travelling to pick up its next shipment. But what if cargo was made aware of its context and purpose? It could find space on a passing truck, let logistics operators know where it is and keep recipients informed of its estimated time of arrival. Perishable and hazardous goods could be closely monitored, transport routes dynamically changed to avoid congestion, and the entire transport industry made dramatically more efficient.
'Put simply, intelligent cargo is about giving cargo the capacity to understand who I am, where I am, what my mission is and what I should do if something goes wrong,' says Margherita Forcolin at IT services company Insiel in Italy. 'From an artificial intelligence point of view it's a basic level of intelligence - it simply reacts to what's going on around it, but from a logistics viewpoint it's a huge step forward.'
Insiel coordinated a consortium of 22 companies, universities and research institutes in defining concepts and developing technology for an intelligent cargo system based on a combination of sensor networks, wireless communications and ambient and artificial intelligence. Supported by EUR 8.25 million in funding from the European Commission, the team behind the EURIDICE* project implemented their system in eight different pilot studies involving transport and logistics operators across Europe.
EURIDICE aimed to use 'cooperative systems' - systems (or objects) that communicate with each other and their surroundings - to provide the right information in the right place at the right time at low cost, using modern communication networks.
The EURIDICE definition of intelligent cargo is built on six key capabilities.
To begin with, the cargo needs to be able to identify itself so an operator at a warehouse can ask a container, pallet or box for its unique ID and determine what is inside. The operator, in turn, should then be able to access information services from the owner, haulier and customs authority to determine the nature, route and clearance status of the goods.
The cargo also needs to be aware of its context, enabling it to report, for example, that it is inside a truck on the road or waiting to be picked up in a storage depot. It should also monitor and report its status, which, depending on the type of cargo, could mean checking its temperature, humidity, whether it is still sealed or has been hit or damaged in anyway.
This information, combined with artificial intelligence technology, enables the cargo to act independently and make autonomous decisions, for example, alerting logistics planners automatically if it deviates from the predefined route, if there is a delay.
'There are two parts to the system: the sensors, data storage, software and transmission components on the cargo and a connected fixed infrastructure that handles the overall management of the system,' Ms. Forcolin, who coordinated the development and deployment of EURIDICE, explains.
Precisely what components need to be used and how depends on the intended application. A shipping container, for example, could be fitted with a range of sensors to monitor all of its contents and its whereabouts, whereas a product package could be tagged with an RFID chip that simply tells logistics operators what it contains and where it is going.
The back-end infrastructure is similarly flexible. It could be installed by a logistics company to manage all of its operations or by a third-party service provider offering services to a cluster of transport firms, suppliers and product recipients.
'There are many different business models we have looked at. Ultimately, how a system like this is implemented and used will be determined by the end-users and the market,' Ms. Forcolin notes. 'The overall concept is to have cargo that is able to communicate important information about itself to the infrastructure and from there to all the stakeholders in the transport chain. Though we talk about intelligent cargo, from a technical viewpoint it's really cargo intelligence - it's a distributed intelligence achieved through different means and processes.'
Solving real-world problems
The enormous potential of the approach was demonstrated by the EURIDICE team in eight pilot implementations that showed how intelligent cargo and cargo intelligence can solve a variety of real-world problems within different areas of the freight industry.
One pilot focused on using the system to interconnect transport and production processes. Working with Italian eyewear manufacturer Safilo, a project partner, technology was implemented to provide the company with automated real-time information about the whereabouts of eyewear components, from before they leave the supplier's factory until they check-in at the company's warehouse.
Equipped with the real-time information about all the parts - even from different suppliers - Safilo could better schedule assembly and manufacturing processes, avoiding delays, reducing costs and improving production efficiency.
With Fiorital, another pilot end-user, the logistics requirements were different. The company deals with the distribution of perishable consumer goods such as fresh fish and needs to closely monitor the status, storage conditions and transport history of its products. In the trial, the EURIDICE implementation enabled Fiorital to monitor in real-time the temperature and conditions of the product during transport and receive automated alerts in the event of an incident.
And what happens after the goods have been safely delivered on time?
With Gebrüder Weiss, an Austrian logistics service provider, the EURIDICE system was implemented to optimise the return of empty pallets and boxes and ensure that trucks do not return empty. The trucks automatically advertise that they have space available and the boxes and pallets inform operators that they have been unloaded and are waiting to be returned.
'Individually, the pilots represented elements of a real-world supply chain. Together, they covered an almost complete supply chain scenario,' Ms. Forcolin says. 'There are so many possibilities for this type of intelligent system. Looking ahead, I can imagine having an intelligent system on the cargo communicating with the vehicle which in turn communicates with the transport infrastructure, the roads, ports, etc - it's the vision of the "Internet of Things".'
With several of the partners continuing to build on the work carried out in EURIDICE, that vision of a more intelligent, more efficient and more environmentally friendly transport sector could come about sooner rather than later.
* 'European inter-disciplinary research on intelligent cargo for efficient, safe and environment-friendly logistics'.
- Project website for 'European inter-disciplinary research on intelligent cargo for efficient, safe and environment-friendly logistics'
- EURIDICE project factsheet on CORDIS