It’s no secret that lots of food goes to waste every day, across the globe. Fortunately, the Internet of Things (IoT) offers a way to mitigate this problem. Smart connected devices with multiple sensors can monitor perishable goods in storage and in transit and relay the data to the cloud. This provides real-time information on the precise conditions of each unit of goods and thus enables corrective actions to reduce waste and save money.
When food goes to landfills, money goes down the drain
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, annual food wastage is estimated at 1.6 billion tonnes. The economic impact of this waste is priced at $750 billion (not including fish and seafood)! But loss of money isn’t the only consequence. The environment is also damaged by an increased carbon footprint, additional landfill deposits and higher demand for agricultural land. Using more land for agriculture, in turn, poses a threat to various plant and animal species.
While these statistics are quite disturbing, smart and sophisticated use of technology brings hope to reduces these dire effects. The agriculture industry is beginning to utilize high-tech, precision solutions, as discussed in this recent post about the transition to Ag3.0. Complimentary to this new paradigm in agriculture, temperature-controlled food supply chains, known as cold chains, are also moving towards precision monitoring, and smart management, which will be the focus of this post.
Real-time cold chain monitoring enables quick action
A cold chain is the entire process that perishable goods go through, from production to market, including storage and various methods of transport. During this entire chain, temperature and other factors must be maintained to safeguard the quality of the product. Traditional monitoring systems are either stationary wired sensors, or portable temperature data loggers. The former are only suitable for warehouses, while the latter are only good for hindsight. This is due to the fact that the logged information can only be read once the goods have arrived at their destination. At that point, the only decision to make is whether to place the goods on the shelf or in the trash.
The greatest advantage in an IoT approach to cold chain monitoring is that information is received in real-time. This means that corrective actions can be taken, for example adjusting the temperature or humidity. This type of intervention leads directly to less spoilage and less waste. Even if preventive action cannot be taken to avoid spoilage, the real-time monitoring data is still valuable. With the knowledge that goods will arrive spoiled, decisions can be made to divert the shipment to a different location, and, if necessary, to send out a replacement shipment and thus save time and fuel. This reduction of superfluous trips delivering spoiled goods, can lead to a significant decrease in fuel and shipping costs, as well as the carbon footprint that comes with them.
Another change introduced in this new paradigm, is the increase in precision. By placing a sensor on each pallet, the differences in environment conditions between pallets in the same shipment can be measured and collected. This data can then be used to calculate the remaining shelf-life of the product. With this information, the traditional FIFO (First In First Out) inventory system can be replaced with the more effective FEFO (First Expired First Out).
The Technology: Mesh Communication and Multiple Sensors
The unique conditions required for the food transportation lead to specific challenges, which differ from other goods and assets. For example, the prevalence of water in food products generates physical conditions that could interfere with certain communication protocols, affecting the decision of what technology should be used. In addition, fluctuations in multiple environment parameters are critical to the quality of the goods. The location of the goods within the warehouse or transportation vessel are also important, as the temperature and other parameters are not completely uniform.
Several companies specializing in IoT solutions have been tapping into the potential of this market and developing unique solutions to tackle these challenges. One of these companies is CartaSense, which also utilizes similar technology for pharmaceuticals and agriculture. Another company is BT9, which has an informative video promoting their solution, which you can watch here. These solutions entail attaching a tag to each pallet of goods. Each tag is capable of transmitting and receiving data, creating a wireless mesh communication network, ensuring that no signal is lost. The data is relayed to a gateway, and uploaded to the cloud. The parameters that are measured by the sensors are light, temperature, humidity, vibrations and gases. All these are processed using sensor fusion to generate a precise status of the goods on each pallet. Each tag must be power efficient, as they are design to run on small batteries. The life span of each wireless tag is between two to five years.
An ideal solution for this use-case would be to use a high-performance, low-power DSP like the CEVA-TeakLite-4. It is specifically designed for always-on uses, which require ultra-low power consumption. One of the techniques used to achieve this is by shutting down unneeded hardware on a cycle-by-cycle basis. The CEVA-TeakLite-4 is also ideal for Sensor Fusion, the combined processing of sensory data from disparate sources. This task is critical, as it is necessary to clean the signals from all the sensors and combine them into precise and dependable data. In addition, the CEVA Dragonfly platforms provide support for LTE ultra-low power Machine Type Communication (MTC) categories (Cat-1, Cat-0, Cat-M and NB-IoT), and combined with CEVA-Bluetooth and CEVA-WiFi hardware and software solutions, these provide an all-in-one solution for any connectivity needs. Always-on, efficient sensing capacity and superior connectivity all make these CEVA technologies a perfect fit for all the tasks involved in smart monitoring of food.
Clearly, there is a lot of work ahead before waste is eliminated, or at least reduced to acceptable amounts. In the meantime, the problem is being engaged on multiple fronts. Regulators are adjusting policies and businesses are looking for more efficient solutions – but all these depend on technology. In order to improve, the solutions have to keep getting better: more power efficient, more precise and less expensive.
Want to learn more?
Read more about monitoring applications at the CartaSense website