Track Goods and People on the Move

 

Track Goods and People on the Move


Professor Victor O.K. Li with the location tracking app on an iPhone

A shipment of valuable computer components makes its way from Hong Kong to New York. The owners want to track its progress at every step but the location updates are not in real time - the best information is that the shipment left San Francisco three hours earlier. But where, exactly, is it?

Businesses and organisations around the world face this challenge of keeping track of goods and even people. Until now there have been only limited options for ubiquitous tracking: either track it outdoors using GPS (global positioning systems) so long as the item is visible to a satellite, or track it indoors using other technology.

However, a new project under Professor Victor Li, Chair Professor of Information Engineering, promises to meet the demand for pervasive-tracking and instant access to information.

He and his team have devised a small hybrid device that integrates GPS, Wi-Fi, cellular networks, radio frequency identification and ZigBee and can attach to cargo.

''What we have come up with is tracking that is 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It's a complete solution,'' he says.

The device works by using the different tracking methods and communicating with other devices to keep track of items indoors and outdoors in a cost-effective way.

For example, in a container yard, the container at the top of a pile is visible to a satellite so it uses the GPS receiver. Containers at the bottom are blocked from the satellite so they use short-range communications to signal their position from the container at the top.

''This can be pushed further so that another container at the top can turn off its satellite receiver and conserve battery by using the receiver of its neighbour,'' Professor Li says.

The largest tracking device is about the size of an iPhone and costs US$50 to manufacture, while smaller tags for indoor use are about the size of a credit card and cost US$8.

The device was tested in an ITF-funded pilot project with DHL Ltd to track goods from its logistics hub to customer premises. It was also tested outdoors in Sai Wan and was found to be more accurate than GPS, averaging a 19 metre error against 37 metres for GPS.

Professor Li says they are working with a potential commercial partner to develop the device for wider use in the multi-billion dollar tracking industry. Some possible applications include tracking trucks on the road, vehicles in a car park, sailors on a ship and even firemen in a burning building, thereby holding promise as a life-saving device.

It's a classic example of the successful journey from cutting edge laboratory research, to applied research through partnership with industry and support of ITF, and then industrial applications to benefit our society.