6 Technologies Driving the NextGen of In-Transit Visibility

Technology in the hands of businessmen

Technology in the hands of businessmen

Every logistics company in the world has a desire to see inside their distribution channels.  They have a need to understand where their shipments are at any given time, the conditions in which they are traveling, and they need to be able to predict when the shipment is expected to arrive.  And there is a strong, positive correlation between the amount of information the company has and their success.  FedEx can tell you where your packages are within a day or two.  Amazon can somehow get anything to you within two days, and not only that, they alert you after its been delivered. Like you’d somehow forget to pick up that Parks and Rec Season 7 Blu-ray set you ordered…come on Amazon, let’s get serious here…

One thing that the Department of Defense (DoD) has in common with FedEx and Amazon is that it too is dependent on its Logistics systems.  Not being able to account for assets in transit has consistently plagued the different branches, causing the reordering of supplies and other assets on a massive scale.  Examples can be found all over the news, such as this one, published in the Washington Post in March 2015 which details how the Pentagon lost $500 MILLION dollars in counterterrorism aid in the form of weapons and ammunition. Need further proof? How about this article in the Guardian talking about how the United States doesn’t know where $12 BILLION in cash went…

These supplies then cause backups in Warehouses and Distribution Centers, forcing our service men and women to work harder to find what they need to get to the front lines and support the fight.  Not to mention, the duplicative spending on the repeat orders.  In an era when our Armed Forces are constantly being asked to do more with less, this area of excess spending needs to be addressed.

How did we get here?

As with everything else, we got here with good intentions.  The solutions often employed by Service branches were once cutting edge, and were viable solutions when implemented. However, as time went on and policies got entrenched, the technologies advanced, but the In-Transit Visibility solutions didn’t.

Problems with the current solution

As we talk to different service men and women that work in the Defense Distribution Industry, we hear a lot of the same problems. And what we have taken away from these discussions is that the current systems are looking to provide the user with data, when what they really need is information.  There are these different stove-piped systems, each managing and maintaining certain elements of data for which they are the authoritative source.  Some of these are hand-fed information, others get uploadsby technologies such as RFID readers.  But they are all looking at point and time data, and they rely on the user to take that data, and turn it into actionable information.  Unless there is pilferage, nobody cares about where an asset was at any particular point in time, they care about the following three things:

  • When is the asset going to get to me?
  • What is the condition the asset will be when I receive it?
  • How will it affect my mission?

These systems, while again – designed with the best of intentions, are putting a lot of pressure on the service men and women to find relevant information, determine which data is accurate and timely, and then make decisions on it with people’s lives on the line.

With the continual advancement of Information Technology systems, standards, and capabilities, now is a good opportunity to take some of that pressure off of soldiers, sailors, marines, coast guard, and airmen, and start expecting our technology to carry a heavier burden.

New Technologies coming to the forefront

While not all of these technologies may be needed in the final solution, below is a list of a few technologies that could begin to do some of the computing and reasoning that has traditionally been placed on our DoD Logisticians.

  • Open Technology Standards – when many of the DoD Authoritative systems were first architected, they were designed to be self-contained. Over the last decade, Open Technology Standards have begun to take off, and have allowed for not only systems to exchange information, but platforms as well. Today, users aren’t tied to a desk. They are mobile, and able to use their phone to complete many of their assigned tasks while they are on to go. The next generation ITV service can’t require these people to return to their desks to do their work…
  • Real time data feeds – estimating an arrival time by dividing the number of miles the asset has left to travel by the average speed of the delivery vehicle is a starting point. However, there is real power in being able to read in and consider real time data feeds, such as weather and road blockages, and being able to understand how those affect the delivery.
  • Big Data – the declining costs and growing sophistication of the Big Data platforms allow systems to make predictions based on historical context. I understand that
    the asset is 200 miles away, and that a truck travels at an average speed of 40 miles per hours.  Based on historical records of assets taking a similar path, we expect that the asset will arrive
    in 6 and a half hours, instead of the estimated 5 hours.
  • Machine Learning – using advanced Machine Learning algorithms, systems can learn from previous predictions to enhance the accuracy of future predictions. As more data is loaded into the system, and more scenarios are tried, the more accurate the machine’s assessment will become.
  • Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) Sensors – these sensors are cheap, can last 2 years or more off of a single battery, are more secure than RFID tags/readers, and allow the environment to become an active participant. Wait…what does that mean? Sensors allow for passive data collection and dissemination.  They are most commonly used by retail stores wanting to direct shoppers to a sale. If a shopper walks into Macy’s and they have the Macy’s app on their phone, BLE sensors can push notifications to the app of sales in different departments just by the shopper walking by the sensor.  In the context of a warehouse situation, if an asset has a BLE sensor applied to it, and it is moved, when a user with an “authorized app” walks by, it can alert the user to update the information, or even push updated information to the app for consolidation.
  • A Comprehensive Notification Component – our service men and women have enough to think about, they should not be required to remember the status of every package. To ease this burden, an alert system should be designed to signal the appropriate person the moment a status is changed.  If an important shipment is received, get an alert.  If an asset will be late, get an alert.  If your container of ice is currently being shipped above 32 degrees Fahrenheit, get an alert…because you no longer have ice, you have water.  Simple things to alert the user to take action, the moment action is required.

The six new technologies outlined above are a few of the technologies Tactical Edge has been experimenting with in our Research and Development efforts in support of the Office of Naval Research.  Our solution consists of a Semantically-enabled Data-as-a-Service (DaaS), that intrinsically understands the relationships between systems commonly used for ITV, it connects to a Big Data backend for storing historical data and context, we have incorporated a real-time weather feeds and designed an alert system.  Our DaaS is accessible as a mobile app, or across a standard web browser, and we are currently beginning to explore the benefits of Machine Learning.  And while I’m not here to tell the government that this is their next solution, I am here to tell them we are onto something and to take a good hard look at our solution set. Because once we show a Logistics-focused serviceman the actionable information they could receive with our system, you can’t ask them to go back to their old ways. It’d be like telling Henry Ford that we don’t need his automobile, we are fine sticking with our horses.

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