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Connectivity Remains the Biggest Obstacle to “Autonomous Logistics”

June 1, 2017
Cost, reliability, and coverage issues continue to hamper the aggressive goals of an autonomous environment, but the venerable USSD technology might offer a solution.

No one questions transportation is moving toward becoming autonomous. It’s safer—94% of the over 35,000 car collision deaths in 2015 were a result of human error. For that reason alone, more than 10 million self-driving cars will be on the road by 2020, according to Business Insider.

Technology giants such as Google, Tesla, and Uber are heavily invested in the research and development of connected technologies to power autonomous logistics. For transportation to be completely autonomous, the way we think about how the road system operates requires innovation.

The first truly autonomous cars and roads are within reach, and autonomous logistics are following close behind. In October last year, an “autonomous” Otto truck shipped a truckload of Budweiser from Fort Collins, Colo., to Colorado Springs. No doubt that trucking will see significant disruption in the coming years. A report published by PwC in September 2016 on developments in the space predicted that the advent of the digitized autonomous truck will completely transform the logistics value chain.

The Cost of Connectivity

Growth in the Industrial Internet of Things is evidently going to drive significant change in the logistics industry. However, the one thing all of these technologies rely on (including the connected car) is connectivity. Connecting autonomous mobile devices via traditional means such as LTE networks or GPS satellites has not only been costly, but reliability and coverage issues still persist. Without sufficient levels of connectivity, autonomous vehicles will remain hype and stay confined to Silicon Valley, rather than less exotic testing grounds such as I-87 and LAX.

Location data is already of critical importance in logistics. Many organizations already have access to information such as when a shipment arrives, a product is delivered, or even where an item is situated. Whenever consumers order off Amazon, an element of tracking is available—typically through RFID scanners when a product reaches certain locations.

The capability for organizations or people to follow individual items on a map very much exists, but the cost of attaching an individual piece of kit to anything other than a very large shipment simply isn’t economically viable. For example, if an organization chooses to track their logistics via mobile-phone networks, a number of issues quickly emerge.

Choosing one network is just the start. If supply chains cross multiple borders, that means either high roaming charges, or taking up contracts with multiple network operators. And this assumes all of the network operators have sufficient levels of coverage.

Whether companies choose to track the movement of goods via 3G, SMS, or GPS/satellite, not only are these technologies expensive, but serious connectivity issues exist. If we start with mobile networks, we’ve all experienced lack of phone signals in areas where coverage should exist. And in areas where network coverage does exist, capacity issues result in dropped calls and a lack of internet connection. Satellite tracking can be more reliable, but it has been known to go wrong, particularly when atmospheric conditions are poor.

The challenge for logistics suppliers is how to provide reliable location insight that’s affordable. It’s the final piece in the puzzle to providing full automation in the logistics industry.

USSD to the Rescue?

One potential solution is a technology called Unstructured Supplementary Service Data, or USSD. A feature within all cellular networks, it can operate as an Internet of Things for industrial solutions without the internet. Available in all cellular networks from 2G, to 3G, 4G, LTE, and satellite, its ubiquity makes it an ideal solution to enable autonomous logistics with full connectivity.

Implemented correctly, USSD can also provide a number of cost savings. It requires little power to operate, enabling devices to be active considerably longer than a mobile-data-based solution, and SIMs can be installed into devices not much bigger than a USB memory stick. Given the fact that no internet is being used, there’s also no need for microprocessors and components to communicate the data, which in turn reduces complexity and costs for manufacturing devices.

Admittedly, USSD is somewhat of an old technology, with certain limitations. For example, if you wanted to transmit video or any sort of rich data, USSD would not be the solution for you. However, typically in logistics, the information that needs transmitting is relatively simple, data like temperature, location, or the status of goods.

Effective automation has in recent years become business critical, but it hasn’t truly been delivered yet in the consumer or business-to-business fields. Location data is essential to this automation, from vehicles through to specific items.

Connectivity is the hurdle to overcome, and USSD presents a compelling solution. Costs can be lowered and reliability increased for true global ubiquity. The transformation of the entire logistics industry need no longer be simply an idea on the pages of magazines, but a practical vision.

Once the vehicles can effectively communicate, having 10 million self-driving vehicles on the road by 2020 will seem like a very low target indeed.

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