When logistics service providers were first tasked with delivering the new Covid-19 vaccines in late 2020, they may have wished for a magic wand to solve the extraordinary challenges their mission would present. While some already had specialty pharmaceutical divisions and cold chain warehouses to service the typical drug and biologics trade, these networks were designed for a lighter flow of goods to predetermined destinations such as hospitals, and not a general blitz to reach all corners of the globe as quickly as possible.
Vials of the precious vaccine had to be moved in huge quantities, kept at ultra-low temperatures, and shipped and delivered at high speed … transport – were largely blocked due to pandemic-related restrictions on passenger travel . At the same time, employees of logistics companies had to work in conditions where they were exposed to the very virus they were fighting. To top it off, they were under colossal pressure to distribute vaccines before the deadly disease spread among vulnerable populations.
Citing severe capacity constraints in the air cargo market, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) called the effort the “mission of the century” for the sector.
Yet despite these and other challenges, logistics service companies – and parcel carriers, in particular – have been successful in their efforts to quickly distribute Covid-19 vaccines. The Internet of Things (IoT), a vast network of connected sensors that has enabled shippers and carriers to monitor and track this critical cargo as it passes through multiple hands, modes of transport and countries, is one of the main tools that the actors have implemented.
MOVE IT QUICKLY, KEEP IT COLD
To help them track shipments and manage the complexities of distributing urgent vaccines, the major package carriers (DHL, FedEx Corp. and UPS Inc.) have all turned to variations of IoT technology.
For DHL, IoT tools were essential to monitor shipments that needed to be kept at sub-zero temperatures (-70 degrees Fahrenheit for the Pfizer vaccine and -20 degrees for the Moderna version) and to reassure business partners who requested delivery. urgent. These partners stretched across the world: until May 2021, the company had carried more than 200 million doses of various Covid-19 vaccines on approximately 9,000 flights to more than 120 countries.
While DHL has a well-established network for transporting vaccines and other pharmaceuticals, it has turned to the IoT portion of its existing system to meet the specific demands of Covid vaccine distribution, Claudia said. Roa, President of the Company, Life Sciences and Healthcare.
“The three main differences or unique characteristics with the Covid-19 vaccine were its extremely low temperature requirement; the lack of data available to know the risks and effects of changes in temperature, weather, etc. ; and its global emergency, which is probably the most sensitive aspect of this distribution effort, ”Roa said. Through its IoT network, DHL had the resources to handle the first two challenges, allowing business leaders to focus on the third. “Using sensors, we were able to monitor the temperature and location of each vaccine shipment to ensure the temperature stayed within the required range,” she said.
For FedEx, IoT networks were essential in tracking a constant flow of vaccine shipments to all 50 states as well as destinations around the world. Through the use of connected sensors, each vaccine shipment generated a cloud of detailed tracking data, the company said. As of June, FedEx had delivered Covid-19 vaccines and related ingredients and supplies to 40 countries, including a shipment of 1.35 million doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine from Memphis, Tennessee, to Toluca, Mexico, in coordination with the nonprofit aid agency Direct Relief and the US and Mexican governments.
In a statement about its role in the vaccine delivery effort, FedEx cited its standard saying on parcel tracking, saying that “The information on the package is as important as the package itself as it moves through. the network”. The Memphis-based company has been relying on the motto for years, but it added something new when it tackled the challenge of vaccine delivery: its “FedEx SenseAware ID” tracking technology, which it unveiled. in May 2020, about six months before the first public vaccine deliveries. has begun.
This new tracking system incorporates sensors designed with the Bluetooth Low Power Consumption (BLE) communication standard, which uses less power and costs less than previous versions. This makes IoT devices affordable enough that users can attach a sensor to every vaccine shipment, not just to pallets or containers. The sensors allow FedEx to track the location of vaccine shipments in near real time. The company then analyzes the data it collects with a platform that leverages artificial intelligence and predictive tools to monitor conditions surrounding the packages; this allows customer support agents to step in if weather conditions or traffic delays threaten to hamper deliveries, the company said.
And for UPS, IoT devices allow the company and its customers to actively monitor temperature-controlled shipments, including tracking the location of any Covid-19 vaccine shipments within its global network. Using its “UPS Premier” service, the Atlanta-based company attaches a small mesh sensor, the size of a credit card, to every vaccine shipment. The technology provides visibility into the location of each package, within 10 feet, anywhere on the network. Like FedEx, UPS analyzes the data it collects using software that can detect network disruptions before they occur, and then recommend real-time countermeasures.
NEW TECHNIQUE SOLVES OLD PROBLEMS
The successful application of IoT technology in vaccine delivery can be attributed to two main factors, depending on the companies that make the sensors and the networks that power the system. The first is the industry’s deep experience with the technology: vendors have deployed simpler versions of IoT devices to solve similar logistical challenges for years, which means when the call for more sophisticated versions came, they had a solid foundation to build on. The second is a series of technological advancements that occurred just before the onset of the pandemic, addressing several long-standing issues with the technology and dramatically increasing its capabilities.
For example, California-based IoT technology provider Identiv has a long history of providing systems that use radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to monitor the temperature of wine shipments in transit. These systems help shippers determine if their product has been exposed to out-of-range temperatures during transport, a concern shared by vaccine shippers. When the need arose, the company was able to use the same approach to develop an ultra-cold shipment monitoring system.
“Smart” packaging with temperature control, anti-tampering [features], and location tracking is essential for efficient vaccine delivery, ”Identiv CEO Steve Humphreys said, adding that Covid-19 has forced“ exponential growth ”in this technology.
This “exponential growth” has come just in time to address the unique challenges of distributing the Covid-19 vaccine. Thanks to a “technological convergence” of recent advances in sensors, readers and other devices, IoT systems have been able to overcome the shortcomings of the past, according to Chris Jones, executive vice president, marketing and services for Descartes Systems Group , an IoT device provider. and logistics technology.
Until recently, most tracking beacons suffered from short battery life, but modern units using low-power Bluetooth technology can run for seven years on one of the shaped batteries. of coin commonly used to power wristwatches, Jones said. Earlier sensors were also too expensive to be used on anything other than higher value expeditions, but their cost today is only a tenth or a twentieth of what it was half a dozen ago. years, he said. With these price reductions, users can now throw a label in every box of goods shipped or attach it to the outside of the package, to the pallet on which it is stacked, or to the Unit Loading Device (ULD) that airlines use it to roll cargo in the bellies of planes.
Another recent technological advance has helped the industry overcome some long-standing issues with collecting data from these sensors. Older systems that relied on cellular data networks had limited capacity to collect and then share the information they recorded because airports limit cellphone connectivity to protect aircraft communication channels and because stored shipments in cold rooms are insulated by thick metal walls. But in recent months, Descartes has provided some of its customers with readers tuned to low-power Bluetooth signals, creating local antenna arrays that operate on a different bandwidth than aircraft wireless signals and can therefore be placed near the cargo. Air cargo carriers, including Delta, Air New Zealand and Cathay Pacific, install solar-powered units on light poles and other sites around an airport; the resulting coverage is far more efficient than anything cellular networks can offer, Jones said.
For example, Cathay Pacific Cargo said in June that it was launching Descartes’ BLE-based network, labels and readers at dozens of airports around the world. The investment will allow customers to monitor vaccines and other shipments in near real time throughout the airport-to-airport journey of each shipment, the airline said. With the new system, Cathay Pacific data loggers can now record and transmit data to Bluetooth readers in the cargo terminal and airside ramp area, providing information such as GPS position, temperature, level humidity and vibration.
By collecting and sharing crucial data on in-transit shipments, IoT technology has played a vital role in the historic efforts of logistics companies to deliver Covid-19 vaccines. Thanks to technical improvements, modern IoT sensors and networks have enabled users to overcome extraordinary challenges in this global race to save lives.
The benefits of improved IoT technology will extend far into the future, Identiv’s Humphries believes. “Manufacturers, distributors, government leaders, NGOs and the healthcare community currently have the opportunity to troubleshoot methodologies and identify best practices to better prepare for a future pandemic,” he said. he declares.