Smart cargo that knows where it is, where it is going, when it needs to be
there and who is handling it would revolutionise the freight industry, improving
efficiency, saving suppliers and recipients time and money, and helping protect
the environment. EU-funded researchers have developed a proof-of-concept
'intelligent cargo' system that promises all those benefits and more.
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
The EURIDICE definition of intelligent cargo is built on six key
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
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
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
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
And what happens after the goods have been safely delivered on
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
* 'European inter-disciplinary research on intelligent cargo for
efficient, safe and environment-friendly logistics'.