Patchy connectivity is holding back multimodal logistics IoT transformation across land, sea and air, says Mike Holdsworth

In the last few years, multimodal transport and logistics providers have had to respond to a multitude of challenges facing the industry. A fiercely competitive international e-commerce market combined with the growing demands of a digitally native customer base that expects next-day delivery and live tracking across multiple continents places operational pressure on speed, visibility and customer service. At the same time, the industry is grappling with new regulatory challenges, as governments around the world implement regulations designed to improve health and safety standards while minimising its environmental impact.

Overcoming these challenges may seem a difficult task but fortunately the mounting pressures of running a globally connected infrastructure can be alleviated by the convergence of IoT connected smart devices, big data and automation. Ultimately, the transport and logistics providers who can quickly and successfully integrate the latest technological innovations across their operations will be those who succeed.

Most logistics providers working across aviation, maritime and the road and rail networks are fully prepared to capitalise on the opportunities of IoT and are laying the groundwork for a smarter and more connected future. In research recently conducted by Inmarsat on large transport and logistics organisations worldwide, 95 per cent stated that IoT was the top priority in their approach to digital transformation, with 36 per cent having already deployed IoT-based solutions, and a further 45 per cent expecting to roll the technology out by 2019.

The digitalised supply chain
IoT is the driving force behind digitalisation and will play an increasingly important role in helping logistics companies to optimise each stage of their business and gain a clear competitive advantage. The highly sophisticated and digitalised supply chain of the 21st century will connect each parcel, container, vehicle, vessel or worker at any location around the globe through smart sensors and monitoring devices arrayed in IoT networks across land, sea and air. In the context of storage and distribution within a warehouse environment, IoT will enable quick location and retrieval of missing stock and enable forklifts to self-navigate and make automatic route corrections based on real-time information updates. This will be supplemented by powerful autonomous robots and unmanned aerial drones that can work without rest breaks, carry heavier loads and quickly bypass areas of heavy traffic or congestion, transforming the way that goods are manufactured, stored and delivered.

Similarly, in a port environment, technologies can help automatically monitor and organise the huge volumes of cargo that pass through each day. LPWAN and RFID technologies can enable automatic scanning and logging of each shipping container, instantly checking all documentation and registering the data, before routing separate goods to the correct storage facilities. Smart responsive devices can identify bottlenecks, and instantly respond to any situation, from delays in the arrival and departure of vessels to unexpected changes in weather and make adaptive quay planning decisions based on available resources, including allocating cranes and redistributing the workforce, easing port congestion.

Vehicle repair and recovery, meanwhile, can be automated through predictive maintenance scheduling and damage alerts that will extend the lifespan of vehicles and ensure minimal down-time. Intelligent route planning will allow deliveries and collections to be scheduled at exact times, driving improvements in the safety of goods, equipment and people, strengthening security and transforming the customer experience. This ability to instantly access detailed information from each stage of the global supply-chain and offer seamless real-time monitoring from point of origin to point of consumption is a huge asset that can be leveraged into new revenue streams by innovative transport operators. Advanced track and trace capabilities that depict the exact, location, temperature and condition of high-value products from each stage of the supply-chain while minimising the risk of lost, stolen or damaged goods can be offered as a premium service, adding considerable value to transport operations and hugely benefitting manufacturers suppliers, providers and customers.

The connectivity conundrum
Despite the incredible rewards on offer there are many challenges that need to be addressed before they can be fully realised, chief among them, connectivity. Forty per cent of respondents in our global IoT research cited connectivity issues as the biggest challenge to adopting IoT solutions, which highlights how reliant IoT in the transport and logistics sector is on connectivity for data analysis. Without ubiquitous connectivity, blackspots emerge where no data is collected, leading to holes in a company’s ability to understand and operate.

Terrestrial mobile networks and GPS are part of the connectivity puzzle, though on their own, they’re unable to offer the level of coverage and reliability that IoT needs to function effectively. When you’re talking about fully-automated vehicles and machinery which need connectivity to work effectively, any downtime at all is going to be mission critical. Moreover, to run an effective worldwide logistics operation today, operators will need to remain in constant communication with their workforce and assets at every stage of the route – which is a tricky task given the patchy availability of terrestrial networks. Global, mobile, reliable satellite connectivity offers an enticing way forward here, enabling transport and logistics companies to remain connected to the grid anywhere on the planet, even in the most remote, isolated or hostile environments.

If transport and logistics companies are going to capitalise on the myriad opportunities of IoT, the sort of reliability, coverage and performance offered by satellite will be essential. Without it, they’ll be on a road to nowhere.

Mike Holdsworth is Director of Transportation Services at Inmarsat. Mike has worked in telecommunications for over 20 years, primarily in wide area networking, cellular and satellite with a heavy focus around mobility platforms on land, sea and air. As Inmarsat’s Director of Transportation Mike is also responsible for leveraging Inmarsat’s capability across land, sea and air to enable a globally connected logistics environment.