PostNL Tracks Temperature-Sensitive Pharmaceuticals Via RFID

By Claire Swedberg

The company has installed SenseAnywhere active UHF transceivers and receivers within the postal vehicles it operates in Belgium.

PostNL's Belgium division is employing active ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags and readers provided by SenseAnywhere to identify locations and conditions inside vehicles as goods—such as pharmaceuticals and other health-care products—are transported from one site to another. SenseAnywhere manufactures the radio frequency identification technology being used and, in the case of PostNL, also provides the software managing the data on a hosted, cloud-based server.

Netherlands-based SenseAnywhere, founded in 2009, produces wireless technology with a focus on active RFID, wireless sensors and Internet of Things connectivity, says Tom Heijnen, the company's founder, owner and managing director. In 2010, SenseAnywhere released a system consisting of active UHF RFID transponders designed to be built into personal weight scales and blood pressure monitors supplied by Beurer and Terraillon.

The AiroSensor (left) has built-in temperature or humidity sensors, as well as an accelerometer for measuring motion, tilt and shock; the AssetSensor has just an accelerometer.

The scale and monitors work in conjunction with SenseAnywhere's RFID reader—which the company calls an AccessPoint—to receive RFID transmissions, convert the data into IP-based information and forward it to cloud-based servers via an Ethernet or other Internet connection. Software on the server confirms the data's receipt and sends a confirmation back to the user's AccessPoint device, which forwards the confirmation to the transponder within the scale or blood pressure monitor, in order to indicate its transmission was received and thus the measurement data can be deleted from its own memory. If the transponder does not receive such a message, it will automatically retry the communication at preset intervals until it is received in the cloud. The data is temporarily stored and immediately forwarded to the user, to be stored by that user's application.

The collected data can also be accessed via Web-based software or an application, by the consumer and by authorized parties—such as a physician, to view an individual's weight or blood pressure readings. SenseAnywhere provides its tags and readers to systems integrators that sell products and solutions directly to customers in the Netherlands and elsewhere worldwide.

Since 2010, Heijnen reports, SenseAnywhere has been developing transponders for a variety of other use cases. The firm has designed an ultra-low-power active RFID tag that is calls an AiroSensor, which requires a single cell battery that can last for up to 10 years. The AiroSensor—which comes with temperature and humidity sensors, as well as an accelerometer, and operates at the 868 or 915 MHz UHF band—can be used to monitor the whereabouts of goods within the supply chain (based on the readers' known locations), while built-in sensors enable it to monitor conditions in cold chain logistics, as well as temperatures within rooms or refrigerators, for retail, pharmaceutical and health-care environments.

The AiroSensor's accelerometer can detect when a tag is moved, as well as measure any tilt and shock. The motion detection's sensitivity is remotely programmable, and can be used to prompt the tag to beacon more frequently when it detects that the object to which it is attached is moving (thereby conserving battery power by enabling the tag to transmit less often when stationary). SenseAnywhere also offers the AssetSensor tag, which comes with an accelerometer but no temperature or humidity sensors. Both versions measure 1.61 inches by 1.26 inches by 0.87 inch in size, and either one can act as data loggers, as they will store the measurements in the event that no AccessPoint reader is in range.

In March of this year, SenseAnywhere installed its AiroSensors within several Belgium-based PostNL vehicles that transport temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals in refrigerated compartments. The postal agency then tested that system to determine how well the technology could track each vehicle's location, as well as monitor temperatures and humidity inside the refrigerated compartments. A version of the AccessPoint receiver, known as a Mobile AccessPoint, was placed in the vehicle's cab, and was powered by the vehicle itself by being plugged into the 12-volt cigarette lighter socket. The Mobile AccessPoint device also includes GPS technology to identify the longitude and latitude of the vehicle's location, and that data, together with the temperature and humidity readings, is forwarded to the cloud-based server via a GPRS or 3G network.

Although SenseAnywhere typically sells its hardware to systems integrators that incorporate it into their own full solutions (with software and server), in the case of PostNL, SenseAnywhere is providing its own software residing in the cloud. PostNL's management can then access that data to determine where its vehicles are located, when they may be delayed and when temperatures may stray outside acceptable parameters, and receive an e-mail or text message or push notification alerts when certain conditions are met or breached. What's more, the company can share that data with government bodies requiring the tracking of such details.

Following the successful use of the initial transceivers on a few vehicles, PostNL installed AiroSensors in additional vehicles during two rollouts—one in May, the other in June. More than 40 vehicles are currently being tracked, initially in Belgium, during a long-term field trial. "Results up till now are very positive," says Bernhard Reusch, the managing director of PostNL Pharma and Care Benelux.

According to Heijnen, there are multiple benefits for users who previously utilized wired data loggers to track the temperatures of pharmaceuticals or other products. First, a wired data logger typically must be installed within a new vehicle, requiring some time before it can be put to work delivering goods. The wired data logger requires that the sensors themselves be connected to a black box that must be installed in the cab. The wired data loggers then need to be calibrated annually in order to comply with regulations, which would require that each vehicle be taken out of commission while the system is tested to ensure its proper operation.

"With the SenseAnywhere solution," Heijnen states, "your temperature and humidity data-logging suddenly becomes much easier." AiroSensors are attached to a vehicle's interior via two-sided adhesive tape, the receiver is plugged into the cigarette lighter and a connection is established with the server via cellular services. Tags can then periodically be removed from the vehicle and returned to SenseAnywhere for calibration, while a replacement could be attached within the vehicle, thereby ensuring that it will not need to be taken out of commission for any time.

"Typically, two independent AiroSensors are used in the conditioned space," Heijnen explains. "This acts as a fail-safe solution. For example, each six months, you remove one for a few days to get it calibrated and returned. Six months later, you take the other out for calibration."

Because data is stored on the tags as well as in the cloud, Heijnen says, the technology provides a very reliable solution. "This reliability is necessary," he notes, "as when you cannot prove the conditions of the pharma goods during storage and distribution, they cannot be used."

If AccessPoints were in use at pharmacist locations or at hospital clinics, Heijnen adds, the data collected could also be automatically forwarded from the AiroSensors.

While SenseAnywhere installed the system and provided the software for PostNL's deployment, the company is seeking partnerships with systems integrators that could install similar solutions for other customers and markets. "We would like to focus on what we are best at: compact, ultra-low-power wireless tags, sensors and data loggers... and the network service to get the data reliably in the cloud," Heijnen says.

Additionally, the technology could be used to track items such as equipment leased to a construction company on a worksite. In this case, users (the equipment rental or leasing firm) could automatically conduct an inventory count of items in stock, as well as track their locations. What's more, the tags' motion sensor data could be analyzed to determine how often the equipment is being used, and to establish its maintenance schedule.

A pharmaceutical company and several other firms are presently in the early stages of testing the AiroSensor and AssetSensor. However, Heijnen says, these businesses have asked to remain unnamed. SenseAnywhere says that to date, more than 100,000 of its RFID readers have been deployed, primarily for use with consumer medical devices such as scales and blood pressure monitors.