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Harkening back to logistics? military roots

Harkening back to logisticsÆ military roots

   It is often easy to forget that the modern science of logistics developed on the battlefield.

   In fact, the modern term 'logistics' itself is derived from the Greek adjective 'logistikos' and the Greek, Roman and Byzantine military machinery all had 'logistikas,' or logistics officers, each responsible for supplying their military forces with the goods and personnel needed to wage war.

   While logistics in a commercial sense has certainly been practiced for nearly as long as that of the military variety, it took the military to transform the art of logistics into the science of logistics. And while in many cases the military has done the research and development, the resultant technology has almost always wound up moving into the commercial sector.

   From a modern perspective, it is worth noting that one of the first true uses of standardized containerization on a large scale was implemented by the U.S. Army during World War II – nearly a dozen years before Malcom McLean launched the container vessel Ideal-X.

The U.S. Army's CONEX container system predated Malcom McLean's Ideal X by nearly 12 years.(Photo courtesy Capt. James McNamera)



   Called 'transporters' by the Army, these 8.5-foot-long WWII containers would eventually evolve within the military to become the all-steel Container Express, or CONEX, system used during the Korean War.

   Steel shipping containers became ubiquitous within the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, and the mid-1960s Defense Department adoption of an 8-foot by 8-foot container in multiple lengths of 10 feet went a long way toward establishing the commercial TEU as we know it today.

   Today, the U.S. military continues to be on the leading edge of technology development in the logistics field. In many cases, where the development cost of new technology is too expensive for a commercial firm to even consider experimenting with, the military can provide the initial implementation and proof-of-concept test beds.

   A recent example is the development, under contract with the U.S. military, of an advanced global asset tracking system. Developed by Annapolis, Md.-based ARINC, the system combines such advanced technologies as radio frequency identification devices, global positioning technology, wireless mesh networking, and a string of 66 Iridium satellites to provide asset security and what can only be described as real 'real time' visibility.

   ARINC is now offering the military developed technology to the commercial logistics market under the brand name Asset Assure.

   Unlike other asset tracking systems that provide data points only when an asset moves past fixed readers, the Asset Assure system is a continuous global tracking system. The system relies on a set of wireless customized transponders that are attached to the asset wishing to be tracked. The system uses two types of transponders: Global Sentinel Units and Remote Sensor Units.

   A simple analogy is that RSUs are like workers in a huge factory with two-way radios, while the GSU is a factory manager monitoring the radios and keeping an open cell phone line to the factory CEO. The workers tell the factory manager what is going on at their station and the manager relays this information to the CEO.

   In the Asset Assure system, RSUs can be configured with various types of sensors such as location, temperature, visible and infra-red light detection, and shock detection. In the case of dry cargo containers, an RSU mounted on a special bracket sits both inside and outside the container doors with the sensors inside and the transmitter outside. RSUs can also be used on reefers, either on the doors or on the refrigeration units. ARINC is also marketing the Asset Assure system to non-container assets, from large primary equipment like locomotives to individual pallet load shipments.

   Under the Asset Assure system, RSUs communicate with GSUs via a wireless mesh network. This allows individual RSUs to talk directly to a GSU within a certain range or talk through each other in a chain to a more distant GSU.

   An example would be a train hauling containers. With the Asset Assure system, only the locomotive need be equipped with a GSU. The RSUs on the containers at the back of the train can communicate with the GSU at the front by talking through the other RSU-equipped containers up the length of the train. And if one RSU fails in the chain, the system is self-healing, with the RSUs simply linking to the next RSU in line.

   As the RSUs' information is transmitted, a GSU, equipped with satellite communications equipment, then transmits the data in real time back through the Iridium satellite system to an ARINC data management center.

   The data, including precise GPS data, is then overlaid onto a Google Earth map, either on a map or on a satellite image of the route, and provided to the client over the Internet via secure XML data feeds, e-mail, and/or SMS.

   Containers equipped with an RSU can be tracked through an entire journey as long as they are within range of a GSU. On land, a truck cab or locomotive with a GSU can provide data on any RSU-equipped container being hauled. At sea, several GSUs placed on a container vessel can provide coverage to all the containers on the vessel with RSUs. Even a container yard with a few strategically placed GSUs can also provide coverage for all RSU-equipped assets in the yard, from containers to yard hostlers to the aforementioned drayage trucks or locomotives.

   The system is also highly flexible and highly customizable. In addition to the various sensors available on the RSUs, the client can also customize much of the data presented, even while the asset is in transit. A client can set alert areas through a Google Earth interface, prompting notification when an RSU-equipped asset moves out of or into a client-defined geographic area. The client can also adjust how often the RSU provides data, down to every several minutes, and set these different reporting times for different portions of the asset journey.

   In November, Jones Act ocean carrier Horizon Lines began offering the technology to its customers under the name ReeferPlusGPS on reefer shipments between the United States and Puerto Rico.

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