Global Postal Monitoring System Goes Live

By Rhea Wessel

The system, initiated by the Universal Postal Union, uses EPC Gen 2 RFID technology to measure delivery times for letters sent to and from 21 countries.


RFID and the quality of letter delivery around the world are getting a big boost as the Universal Postal Union (UPU), a United Nations agency that fosters cooperation between the postal organizations of 191 nations worldwide, implements a wide-scale pilot involving EPC Gen 2 passive RFID tags and interrogators. The pilot, launched earlier this month after the organization conducted a similar test in the Middle East, will measure delivery times for letters sent to and from 21 countries.

Postal service providers from the following nations are participating in this first phase: Aruba, Chile, Greece, India, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands Antilles, Norway, Peru, Qatar, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, Togo, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Venezuela. The U.N. agency plans to expand the project, known as the Global Monitoring System (GMS), to up to 100 countries by 2012.

RFID interrogators were installed at key entry and exit points at post offices in 21 countries.

According to Akio Miyaji, who heads the UPU’s quality-of-service initiatives, GMS was created to measure delivery times for a select number of test letters among the 431 billion letters sent worldwide each year. In most countries, individual parcels are tracked, usually by means of bar-code technology. Until now, there has been no way to reliably measure the amount of time it takes to send and receive letters. “To improve the quality of letter-delivery services,” Miyaji says, “we have to be able to measure the quality on a scientific basis.”

At present, industrialized nations share the fees they collect for stamps using a formula that includes a variable component based on delivery quality—that is, the time expended to transport and deliver the letter. “We need to measure quality performance,” Miyaji explains, “since it’s linked to payments.”

During the 17-month trial, 600 pilot participants, which the UPU calls panelists, will slip EPC Gen 2 tags into 80,000 test letters mailed from 38 countries. The tags will be read as the letters move through key entry and exit points in the postal systems, until each letter reaches the postal system exit point in the county of its final destination.

The UPU will utilize the RFID data to reconstruct the path taken by a particular letter, and measure the time it took to move among key junctures. With such a large amount of this information at hand, quality managers in Switzerland will then be able to pinpoint bottlenecks in the system.

“We will have a clear and reliable indication of what happened in the receiving country, but also from end to end,” says Antonio Caeiro, a GMS project manager at the Universal Postal Union. During the first weeks of the pilot, he notes, the project was on track. The system generated initial data, and project managers were able to verify that communications were working properly.

Once the system is fully up and running, the quality data will be available to users via a Web interface called the Statistical System for Analyses and Reports (STAR).

The UPU considered employing a semi-active RFID system for tracking letters after consulting with member states familiar with the technology, such as Switzerland (see Swiss Post Delivers RFID to Its Parcel Centers, Transportation Hubs), but it ultimately ruled out semi-active tags due to their cost. When the GMS project was being planned in 2005, Miyaji says, a single semi-active tag cost approximately 50 dollars.

UPU’s Akio Miyaji

The agency also ruled out a semi-active system after comparing its performance rates to those of passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID during a test conducted in the Middle East (see U.N.’s Universal Postal Union Gears Up for Large RFID Pilot). “We found that the performance rates were not so different,” Miyaji explains.

Before the pilot’s launch, the UPU held an open tender for technology providers, and eventually chose Aida Centre, a Spanish systems integrator that had helped Correos, Spain’s postal carrier, to implement a system utilizing passive EPC Gen 2 RFID tags (see Spanish Postal Service Expands Its RFID Deployment). Reva Systems‘ Tag Acquisition Processor (TAP) devices will manage the RFID interrogators and the collection of tag data. Motorola supplied 70 reader gates for 31 postal centers, as well as 68 additional interrogators. The readers comply with various international standards around the world.

German firm Quotas hired the panelists, and is now managing the process of sending out letters containing RFID tags. The tags are being supplied by Alien Technology. Each tag is encoded with a hybrid ID number based partly on the tag’s Electronic Product Code (EPC), and also includes a UPU number.

Ashley Stepenson, Reva’s chairman and cofounder, says the Universal Postal Union chose to deploy his company’s TAP 331 devices because of their ability to interface locally with RFID readers, to collect, process and store data, and to communicate regularly with the UPU system. He expects the agency’s project to lead to further adoption of similar measuring systems in private postal systems, such as those run by express logistics companies.

Caeiro also expects the GMS project to spur demand from individual countries for systems to monitor their domestic mail performance more closely. And it could easily lead to spin-off RFID projects, he says—such as efforts to tag valuable postal containers, including roll cages, postal bags and trays, much as the postal carrier in Switzerland does.