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IBM, Maersk to equip ship cargo with sensors

Duo says tracking system will let companies handle logistics more efficiently and improve security.

IBM and Maersk Logistics are taking the concept of radio frequency tags to the world's ocean shipping lanes and ports.

The two companies on Tuesday detailed an initiative to equip large shipping containers with wireless tracking devices, which they call Tamper-Resistant Embedded Controllers, or TREC. Combined with back-end software and a wireless network, the sensor system will allow shippers to get a remote view of cargo's movements, according to the two companies.

The system was designed jointly by Maersk, a heavyweight in the logistics industry, and IBM, which drew from its expertise in research and business consulting. The two companies announced the plan Tuesday at a press conference at the U.S. Maritime Expo conference in New York City.

The goal of the package, which is expected to be commercially available next year, is to give shipping companies information on containers' movements in real time. Access to that information will allow companies to handle logistics more efficiently and improve security, IBM executives said Tuesday.

"At the beginning, we started by focusing on security, because that is what governments wanted," said Stefan Reidy, the leader of the program, which is called IBM Intelligent Trade Lane. "But we realized that private parties will invest and only invest if they have an ROI (return on investment) and the return comes from the visibility of the supply chain."

For example, better information will let shippers reroute cargo to different warehouses based on the inventory.

On the security side, the system is equipped with sensors that create a record of a container's movements, such as when a door is opened.

The heart of the system is a cigar-box-size computer that slips into the door of a container. There are eight sensors attached, which measure things such as temperature, altitude and light. An antenna on the top of the container communicates data with wireless networks--Zigbee for short-range, GPRS-based mobile data services, or Iridium's low-flying satellite network.

The Tamper-Resistant Embedded Controllers differ from many RFID tags, which are activated by passing by a reader to collect information, such as identifying an individual item or the contents of a palette.

Instead, the controllers IBM and Maersk have worked with are more powerful and able to send and receive data independently. Access to the system is secured via a smart-card authentication system, and data transmissions can use encryption, IBM executives said. The devices can be programmed to send an alert if a container is opened.

The deal with Maersk typifies IBM's long-term strategy for professional services. The company is looking to develop industry-specific packages that exploit the computing giant's deep technical expertise from research and involve its business consulting services.

In this case, IBM intends to offer the full suite of equipment and services to install and collect data, said Mogens Roedbro, partner and vice president for Intelligent Trade Lane in IBM's Business Consulting Services unit. He said that tests are slated to begin in November or December. Pricing has not yet been determined.