LA-Area Food Distributors Use Active Transponders to Track Trucks, Temperatures

By Claire Swedberg

StarTrak's ReeferTrak Scout system, installed on refrigerated trucks, transmits temperature, location and other data to base stations up to 3 miles away.

Several Los Angeles-area food distributors have begun deploying an RFID tracking system manufactured by StarTrak Systems, a subsidiary of Alanco Technologies. The ReeferTrak Scout is a new product consisting of base-station transceivers that communicate with transponders installed on refrigerated trucks ("reefers"), enabling transportation companies to track the temperatures and movements of products in their trucks.

StarTrak will not release the names of the companies using the system. However, according to the firm's CEO and founder, Tim Slifkin, five companies have completed pilot projects lasting about one year, and are now tracking a limited number of trucks in their fleets before extending the system company-wide.

Tim Slifkin

ReeferTrak Scout is a less expensive alternative to StarTrak's Command system, which uses satellite communications, or its Sentry system, which uses cellular communications, to track the locations of trucks or rail containers in transit. The system also monitors the temperature and conditions inside those vehicles, to watch for heavy shaking and other risks. The Scout system is less costly because instead of using cellular or satellite communications systems, it utilizes a base station (a transceiver connected to an RF antenna mounted on the roof of a warehouse or distribution center). The base station is linked wirelessly to a StarTrak computer, which sends data via the Internet to StarTrak's data center and, ultimately, to a secure Web site. "It's just like you had a wire out of the computer to every asset in the yard," says Slifkin.

The onboard transponder measure 5 inches by 5 inches by 8 inches and is powered by either a battery or solar panel. Each unit consists of an RF transceiver, an embedded processor and interface to process incoming and outgoing data, a GPS receiver and a variety of sensors for measuring such things as the amount of fuel in the vehicle, oil pressure and the temperature of the truck's refrigerated compartment. The unit's transceiver receives and transmits signals over the 900 MHz frequency band in the United States (2.3 GHz in other countries), and constantly listens for an RF transmission from a base station, according to Slifkin. The device can communicate with a base station up to three miles away, Slifkin says, allowing companies to track all the RF-enabled vehicles on a large lot without requiring multiple antennas.

"If the trucks run a fixed route every day, this system works very well," Slifkin says. A transportation company can deploy base stations at the locations where trucks regularly deliver goods, thereby tracking when deliveries are made—and, perhaps more importantly, when trucks are delayed and idling in warehouse yards while expending energy keeping food cold.

When the reefers operate out of range of a base station, the onboard transponder logs the refrigeration unit's performance data and, upon arrival near a base station, automatically downloads the information when it captures a transmission from that station. In this way, customers can confirm the shipment's temperature compliance from origin to destination. The GPS receiver tracks the location of the vehicle as it travels throughout the day, and those locations are stored and later downloaded with other sensor measurements once the vehicle comes within range of the base station.

Maintaining a record for the temperature of perishable food has become a strong incentive for the transportation industry to seek tracking technology. With the Scout system, Slifkin says, the sensor records the details of the temperature at preset intervals—for example, every three minutes. When the truck passes or comes within range of a Scout RF antenna, the base station captures the data and sends it via a wireless connection to StarTrak's central data center. The data is then posted on a secure Web site that truck companies, manufacturers and other interested parties can access to evaluate whether the product maintained a stable temperature.

The Scout system allows trucking companies to prepare their vehicles automatically for the day and begin cooling the units at a preprogrammed time, based on instructions received from the base station. "The dispatcher can set the system to instruct vehicle cooling systems to begin at a certain time of the morning," Slifkin says, "and also read sensors as to how much fuel is in the tank, what the oil pressure is, and even whether the door is shut." Employees arriving at the office that morning, he adds, can receive a message on the Web site related to which vehicles may not be responding appropriately (not cooling down, for instance) or that do not have enough fuel in their tanks.

Regarding cost, Slifkin is not revealing specifics at this time, though it is said to be a much lower cost than that of satellite systems. "It's a lot less expensive than you would think," Slifkin says, indicating that the hardware and software—all of which is provided by StarTrak—cost companies "considerably less than $1,000 per trailer." StarTrak also charges a service fee based on usage, but it is far less than cellular or satellite, Slifkin says.

Most of StarTrak's products, Slifkin reports, are still using satellite or cellular technology. ReeferTrak Scout, he says, "is a big part of our future, but not a large part of what we currently offer."