Air-Trak Brings Visibility to Waste Management

By Claire Swedberg

Specialty Solid Waste & Recycling, a California trash collector, has been using Air-Trak's RFID-enabled WasteConnect solution to record which bins its trucks pick up, and where.

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Air-Trak, a fleet-tracking services provider based in San Diego, Calif., is currently in conversations with several potential customers to supply its RFID-enabled WasteConnect solution. Specialty Solid Waste & Recycling, which provides collection services for the city of Sunnyvale, Calif., is employing the WasteConnect system not only to track the locations and activities of its trash-pickup trucks, but also to monitor which bins are dumped during rounds of waste and recycling collection.

Air-Trak provides GPS-based vehicle-tracking solutions for companies that dispatch trucks or vans on daily rounds and want to gain visibility into the movements of those fleets. The WasteConnect system consists of GPS tracking units, a hosted network operations center to manage data collected from those devices, and access to that information by Air-Trak’s customers via a portal. The GPS unit, typically installed beneath a truck’s dashboard, captures the GPS coordinates and forwards that data to the server every fifteen seconds, via a cellular connection. In that way, the company’s management knows which truck went to which destination (for example, the streets it traversed), and the firm can thereby determine if a set of residences may have been overlooked.

During the past few years, says Dave Gelvin, the Air-Trak’s president and CEO, waste-management firms have been requesting that RFID technology be added to Air-Trak’s fleet-tracking solutions, because those companies’ customers—municipalities—sought a method for verifying which trash bins had been emptied. In fact, Gelvin says, many communities require RFID technology as part of their waste-management contracts to provide an added level of visibility for waste collectors and their customers—a view into not just where a particular vehicle is located, but also at which sites a bin has been emptied. Just knowing that a truck stopped at a specific address, he explains, does not mean a bin associated with that address was emptied. Particularly in urban areas, Gelvin explains, multiple bins are put in close proximity to each other. Waste-management companies in such areas have concerns they hope RFID would resolve as well, he adds. If a truck passes down a street or road and misses a bin, the driver may then need to travel a great distance to return to that address and service that bin. With such vehicles typically consuming fuel at a rate of three miles per gallon, that extra trip can be expensive.

Air-Trak began developing a solution using Intermec‘s IV7 vehicle-mount RFID reader cabled to a truck’s GPS unit. The company initially tested the technology in a mocked-up vehicle at its own site in San Diego, after which Specialty began piloting the technology on a single truck in the Bay Area, approximately two years ago. Within a few months, the firm then deployed the system on its entire fleet of vehicles.

Typically, Gelvin says, the bin manufacturers now embed EPC Gen 2 passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags into the containers’ handles for their own tracking purposes within their supply chain. As such, the WasteConnect software, hosted by Air-Trak, leverages those same tags by linking the unique ID number encoded on each tag with details regarding the resident assigned to the corresponding bin.

The Intermec reader is wired to an antenna attached at the “tip point” directly above a truck’s hopper, where the bins that have been automatically lifted are dumped. The antenna captures the tag as the bin is emptied, and the GPS unit then links the culled read data with the GPS coordinates and forwards that information to the server. The software stores each vehicle’s expected route and bin-collection details, so if an unexpected event occurs—such as certain bins not being dumped—the software can issue a text or e-mail message to management, who could, in turn, contact the driver to learn what had transpired.

The GPS unit also comes with a “telemetry button” that the driver can push to indicate when a bin is not left out at the appointed location, thereby alerting the software to that situation.

To simplify the commissioning of bins, the Air-Trak solution lets a waste-management company use an iPhone fitted with a handheld reader. The interrogator, manufactured for Air-Trak by a third party, plugs into the phone. Upon taking a new bin to a residence, a worker would first read the tag, and then input the resident’s name and address into the Air-Trak Mobile Resource Management (MRM) application running on the phone. The app would then transmit that resident’s name, address and bin tag ID number to the server, along with the phone’s GPS coordinates.

Specialty Solid Waste & Recycling launched the full deployment of WasteConnect in 2011, Gelvin says, and the system now manages data about thousands of garbage and recycling bins. The firm did not respond to requests for comment.

According to Gelvin, Air-Trak is presently in discussions about the WasteConnect solution with other companies that face contracts with communities in which the use of RFID is a required component of waste-management services.