When logistics service providers were first charged 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 specialized pharmaceutical divisions and cold chain warehouses to serve the typical trade in medicines and biological products, those networks were designed for a lighter flow of goods to predetermined destinations like hospitals, not an all-out blitz to reach every corner of the globe as quickly as possible.
The vials of the precious vaccine had to be moved in huge quantities, kept at ultra-low temperatures, and shipped and delivered at top speed … all at a time when commercial aircraft—whose belly space has long been the main means of expedited international cargo transport—were largely grounded due to pandemic-related restrictions on passenger travel. At the same time, the service providers’ employees had to work in conditions where they faced exposure to the very virus they were fighting. To cap it off, the contractors were under colossal pressure to distribute the vaccines before the deadly disease could spread among vulnerable populations.
Citing severe capacity constraints in the aircargo market, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) dubbed the effort “the mission of the century” for the sector.
Yet despite those and other challenges, logistics service companies—and parcel carriers, in particular—have been successful in their efforts to swiftly distribute Covid-19 vaccines. One of the key tools players have brought to bear is the internet of things (IoT), a vast network of connected sensors that allowed shippers and carriers to monitor and track this critical cargo as it passed through multiple hands, transportation modes, and countries.
For DHL, IoT tools were critical for monitoring cargo that had to be maintained at subzero temperatures (-70 degrees Fahrenheit for the Pfizer vaccine and -20 degrees for the Moderna version) and for reassuring trading partners who were pushing for urgent delivery. Those partners stretched across the globe: Through May of 2021, the company had transported more than 200 million doses of the various Covid-19 vaccines on about 9,000 flights to more than 120 countries.
While DHL has a well-established network for transporting vaccines and other pharmaceuticals, it looked to the IoT part of its existing system to meet the specific demands of Covid vaccine distribution, said Claudia Roa, the company’s president, Life Sciences and Healthcare.
“The three main differences or unique features with the Covid-19 vaccine were its extremely low temperature requirement; the lack of data available to know the risks and the effects of changes in temperature, time, etc.; and its global urgency—which is probably the most sensitive aspect of this distribution effort,” Roa said. Thanks to its IoT network, DHL had the resources in place to manage the first two challenges, thereby freeing company leaders to concentrate on the third one. “Using sensors, we have been able to monitor the temperature and location of every vaccine shipment to guarantee that the temperature stays within the required range,” she said.
For FedEx, IoT networks were crucial for tracking a steady stream of vaccine shipments to all 50 states as well as destinations around the world. Through the use of connected sensors, every shipment of vaccines has generated a cloud of detailed tracking data, the company said. As of mid-June, FedEx had delivered Covid-19 vaccines and related ingredients and supplies to 40 countries, including a shipment of 1.35 million Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses from Memphis, Tennessee, to Toluca, Mexico, in coordination with the nonprofit aid agency Direct Relief and the U.S. and Mexican governments.
In a statement about its role in the vaccine delivery effort, FedEx cited its standard dictum about tracking packages, saying “The information about the package is as important as the package itself as it moves through the network.” The Memphis-based company has invoked that motto for years, but it added something new when it tackled the vaccine delivery challenge: its “FedEx SenseAware ID” tracking technology, which it unveiled in May 2020, about six months before the first public vaccine shipments began.
That new tracking system incorporates sensors designed with the Bluetooth low-energy (BLE) communications standard, which uses less power and costs less than previous versions. That makes the IoT devices affordable enough that users can attach a sensor to each 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 intervene if weather or traffic delays threaten to impede deliveries, the company said.
And for UPS, IoT devices are enabling the company and its customers to actively monitor temperature-controlled cargo, including pinpointing the location of any Covid-19 vaccine shipment within its worldwide network. Using its “UPS Premier” service, the Atlanta-based company attaches a small mesh sensor, about the size of a credit card, to every vaccine shipment. The technology provides visibility into the location of every package, to within 10 feet, anywhere in the network. Like FedEx, UPS analyzes the data it collects using software that can detect network disruptions before they occur and then recommend countermeasures in real time.
The successful application of IoT technology in vaccine distribution can be attributed to two main factors, according to companies that manufacture the sensors and networks that make the system work. The first is the industry’s deep experience with the technology: Vendors have been deploying simpler versions of IoT devices to solve similar logistics challenges for years, which meant that when the call for more-sophisticated versions came, they had a solid foundation to build on. The second is a spate of technological advances that occurred just before the pandemic began, solving several longstanding problems with the technology and greatly expanding its capabilities.
For example, California-based IoT technology vendor Identiv has long been providing systems that use radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags to monitor the temperature of wine shipments in transit. These systems help shippers determine whether their products have been exposed to out-of-range temperatures while en route—a concern that vaccine shippers share. So when the need arose, the company was able to use the same approach to develop a monitoring system for ultra-cold shipments.
“‘Smart’ packaging with temperature control, anti-tampering [features], and location tracking is critical in efficient vaccine delivery,” Identiv CEO Steve Humphreys said, adding that Covid-19 has forced “exponential growth” in this technology.
That “exponential growth” came just in time to solve several key challenges with Covid-19 vaccine distribution. Thanks to a “technology convergence” of recent advances in sensors, readers, and other devices, IoT systems were able to overcome past shortcomings, according to Chris Jones, executive vice president, marketing and services for Descartes Systems Group, a provider of IoT devices and logistics technology.
Until recently, most tracking tags suffered from short battery life, but modern units using Bluetooth low-energy technology can run for seven years on one of the coin-shaped batteries commonly used to power wristwatches, Jones said. Earlier sensors were also too expensive to use on anything but the highest-value shipments, but their cost today is just one-tenth or one-twentieth of what it was half a dozen years ago, he said. Thanks to those price drops, users can now toss a tag into each carton of goods being shipped or attach it to the outside of the parcel, the pallet it’s stacked on, or the unit load device (ULD) that airlines use to roll cargo into the bellies of planes.
Yet another recent technology advance has helped the industry overcome some longstanding problems with collecting data from those sensors. Older systems that relied on cellular data networks had limited capacity to collect and then share the information they recorded, since airports limit cellphone connectivity to protect planes’ communications channels, and because shipments sitting in cold storage are insulated by thick metal walls. But in recent months, Descartes has provided some of its customers with readers that are tuned to Bluetooth low-energy signals, creating networks of local antennas that operate on a different bandwidth than airplane wireless signals and can therefore be placed close to cargo. Airfreight carriers, including Delta, Air New Zealand, and Cathay Pacific, are installing the solar-powered units on light poles and other sites around an airport; the resulting coverage is far more effective than anything cellular networks can offer, Jones said.
For example, Cathay Pacific Cargo said in June that it was launching Descartes’ BLE-based network, tags, and readers at dozens of airports across the globe. This investment will allow customers to monitor vaccine and other shipments in near real time through the airport-to-airport leg of each shipment’s journey, the airline said. With the new system, Cathay Pacific’s data loggers can now record and transmit data to Bluetooth readers in the cargo terminal and the airside ramp area, providing such information as the GPS location, temperature, humidity level, and vibration.
By collecting and sharing crucial data about shipments in transit, IoT technology has played a critical role in logistics companies’ historic effort to deliver Covid-19 vaccines. Thanks to engineering upgrades, modern IoT sensors and networks have allowed 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 Humphreys believes. “Manufacturers, distributors, government leaders, NGOs, and the health-care community have an opportunity right now to troubleshoot methodologies and identify best practices to better prepare for a future pandemic,” he said.