Companies Testing New IoT Devices for Refrigerated Container Monitoring

Orbcomm's cellular-based CT 3000 and CT 3100 units can be plugged into the reefer units of containers, thereby providing two-way access to sensor data, along with GPS-based location information, which shippers or transport companies can access via the ReeferConnect software platform, and adjust conditions remotely.
Published: December 19, 2018

Industrial Internet of Things (IoT) technology company Orbcomm has released two new wireless devices for its cloud-based ReeferConnect refrigerated container-monitoring system that leverage the reefer unit sensors and provide two-way cellular connectivity. The units, called the CT 3000 and CT 3100, enable shippers and transport companies to view the conditions of perishable products in transit, as well as use ReeferConnect’s two-way functionality to automatically adjust settings to improve conditions. The sensors and related software bring visibility to the conditions of containers as they move through the supply chain, or allow logistics providers to collect data and share it with customers.

The CT 3000 and CT 3100 are both compact wireless devices intended to track the movements and status of refrigerated containers, and to communicate that data via cellular connections. The CT 3000, a ruggedized unit designed to be permanently installed on a container, can track a container’s location with a built-in GPS unit, monitor the conditions inside the reefer unit, and send real-time data via GPRS. It captures temperature and humidity levels, as well as dozens of other sensor readings, by accessing the data collected by the reefer unit’s own internal sensors.

The CT 3000 (top) and CT 3100

The CT 3000 fits on any major containers currently available on the market and can be permanently attached via screws. It is designed to be easily cabled to internal sensor devices using a serial connector built into each container. “The secret sauce is that we work with all the major OEMs to get their protocol,” says Mike Dempsey, Orbcomm’s VP of container and port solutions, “so that we know how to connect to their controllers.” By linking directly to the reefer unit, the system can collect real-time data that can include as many as 80 different data elements, such as ambient temperature, compression, suction and carbon dioxide levels.

The other unit, the CT 3100, serves as a temporary external port device that can be installed within seconds, Dempsey says, and then be removed from the container at any point at which that container changes custody. “We use it to talk to the reefer controller,” he explains—similarly to the CT 3000, though this is a temporary installation. The CT 3100 is powered via rechargeable batteries that have a lifespan of 90 to 120 days, so they can continue transmitting data while a container is in transit. The CT 3000, on the other hand, relies on the reefer’s power since it is permanently installed.

The CT 3100 is designed for use in scenarios in which operators transport or manage containers owned by a third party. For example, companies that own the containers often have vessel-sharing agreements involving containers from a variety of firms on a single vessel. With the CT 3100, the vessel line—or the transport company, such as a beneficial cargo owner (BCO) or freight forwarder—can attach the IoT box to the container and provide automatic monitoring for their own purposes, as well as share data with their customers or partners.

The CT 3100 comes with a magnet and a five-pin cable to connect the reefer unit, and can be attached to containers at terminals where the containers are loaded onto or offloaded from vessels or trains, or on chassis to be transported by truck. “It takes five seconds to install it,” Dempsey says. In that way, he explains, while a container is dwelling in a yard, for instance, personnel onsite need not walk around the yard every six to eight hours to check each container’s temperature. Instead, the data is collected automatically, and is made available through ReeferConnect.

There are other wireless temperature-tracking solutions, Dempsey says. However, he notes, the key differentiator offered by the new product series is the ability for single trip container management. Unlike other solutions for cold-chain management, ReeferConnect enables a single unit to connect to a reefer controller and provide wireless connectivity, as well as cloud-based data management, via a single device for a trip-based application.

Mike Dempsey

The ReeferConnect solution captures and manages data regarding each refrigerated container, as well as its location and condition, which can then be viewed on a dashboard. “The benefit,” Dempsey states, “is that one person can sit in a room and manage hundreds or thousands of containers,” simply by reviewing the relevant data. “They’re managing by exception; they get notified of issues they need to act on, only.”

The system can also issue alerts and utilize a two-way function to enable a user to either manually or automatically alter the settings inside the reefer unit, based on sensor measurements. If the data indicates a deviation between the set point and actual conditions, for example, the system can automatically adjust the temperature setting. Or, if there is too much oxygen present, the container can be prompted to force oxygen out of the box. “We’ve been testing with some companies for quite some time,” Dempsey states. “Overall, I think we’re going see quite some interest.”

Several companies are already deploying or testing the new wireless devices, including a transport firm that moves beef to Asia from Nebraska and plans to use the system on the containers as they leave the West Coast U.S. port. A perishable food company in Europe will be using the solution to track products as they ship out of Rotterdam. Shipping lines are also preparing to test or install the system. The solution allows shipping lines to improve the level of service they provide to their customers (the shippers), by offering location and status visibility into their cargo.

“This is really a product very focused on the shipper themselves,” Dempsey states. “It’s going to open up a whole new world for the shipper, where they can access real-time data off the reefer that they couldn’t get in the past.”