Whether at sea, on rail, staggered or stored, shipping containers can now be tracked worldwide via satellite. Cont-Trak, an efficient satellite-based container tracking solution has been developed with the help of ESA's Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems (ARTES) programme.
Field tests have been carried out at a container yard in Halifax (CA) to test different staggering or stacking situations and during transit of containers shipping from Europe to North America. Containers were fitted with Cont-Trak terminals and deployed on their normal routes. Terminals were set to provide reports every four hours. These successful tests showed that seamless coverage between North American and European systems can be achieved; that transmission capability in the container environment on board ship, in a harbour, on a truck or rail car was successful; and the system had the capability to receive and process polling commands.
"Cont-Trak can track containers in remote locations where no terrestrial communication networks are available, such as the transit of containers via rail, road, ships in the middle of the ocean, or storage of containers in remote locations all over the world," explains Norbert Hübner, ESA's technical officer for the Cont-Trak project. "The major challenge of the activity was to solve the problem of container staggering which typically represents a major obstacle for the requirement of line of sight communication with satellites. This challenge was met successfully."
The Cont-Trak solution consists of a satellite terminal that is located on the outer hull of the container and contains two distinct elements. The first is the GPS / satellite communication terminal which provides location-based information as well as the link to the communication satellites.
The second element is the newly-developed Container Tracking Interface Module (CTIM). The CTIM communicates with the satellite communication terminal, with container sensors, and with other containers that do not have a line of sight to a communication satellite, via a UHF wireless inter-container communications link. This data is collected and transmitted via an L-band satellite to the specially-designed Cont-Trak server.
"The CTIM will connect to the container that has line of sight to a communications satellite, thereby setting up autonomously a communication network between all containers equipped with the Cont-Trak solution,. says Mr. Hübner. .One big advantage of this solution is that it can be applied globally, as the frequency of the CTIM was chosen to be 2.4 GHz which has no utilisation restrictions worldwide, compared to other frequencies."
Novacom (FR) and GlobalWave (CA) were the original Cont-Trak project contractors. GlobalWave has since been sold to SkyWave Mobile Communications (CA). The GPS / satellite communication terminal used in the Cont-Track solution was based on the MT3550 terminal which is already used commercially. Novacom was responsible for designing the Cont-Trak server.