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IoT-enabled shipping containers sail the high seas improving global supply chains.

Aug 15, 20195 mins
Internet of ThingsMarketsTechnology Industry

Global supply chains depend on shipping containers to transport supplies to manufacturers and finished goods to distributors. IoT makes it possible to track the location and condition of containers and their contents across ships, trains and trucks so that businesses run smoothly.

Global trade flows through shipping containers. Manufacturers depend on them to get raw materials in time and to ship finished products to market. IoT is being applied to monitor containers and make sure that their contents aren’t damaged or stolen.

Inter-modal containers

Containers have standardized dimensions, which lets transporters easily ship, stack and store them. There are over twenty million containers in motion right now. Containers are pre-filled which reduces the time that trucks need to get loaded. Their standard size allows them to be easily transferred between trucks, planes, ships and trains.

Global supply chains based on containers enable manufacturers to minimize their costs with ‘just-in-time’ inventory. This makes it important to track containers’ location and the condition of their contents.

The smart container

Containers are made of steel and stacked several deep making communications a challenge. LoRa and WiFi are used for shipboard communication with sensors. Container sensors monitor several parameters:

  • Monitoring the light and humidity as it harms the contents
  • Door sensors to track where and when the container was opened and closed
  • Acoustic sensors to detect possible motion or theft in the container
  • Location and altitude sensors to track a containers precise location

A local server first processes sensor data and sends key data to onshore facilities via satellite services such as Inmarsat.

Continuous monitoring of containers enables port facilities to better plan for incoming shipments, storage and onward distribution.

Pilot project

Container 42 is a smart, connected container proof of to demonstrate the possible innovations that are now available through IoT and GIS. It is a joint endeavor between the Port of Rotterdam Authority, IBM, Cisco, Esri and Axians. A standard container that has been outfitted with sensors and cameras has left the Port of Rotterdam on a two-year multi-modal journey by ships, trains and trucks to raise awareness on new ways to drive out supply chain inefficiencies and reduce pollution attributed to global shipping.

Geographic Information System (GIS) enabled IoT

Transparency is critical in today’s connected, global supply chain as product and service demands increase across every geography and sector. Esri a leader in location intelligence solutions, delivers the GIS framework for Container 42. Based on the science of geography, GIS integrates many types of data and delivers insight on the transportation lifecycle to support data-driven decisions that contribute to higher performing supply networks while reducing shipping related pollution. Esri’s GIS technology enables producers, shippers, distributors and buyers to connect their entire supply network to better understand where its resources and products are everywhere in the supply chain –where they come from and, staying connected, what happens in near real time whether by sea, rail or road. Organizations can understand where assets are located (products, trucks, trains, containers), where they’ve been, what they are exposed to, and when compromises happen (contaminants, defects, conflicts, thefts) they can roll back to the origin of the fault for quicker remediation.


The container is fitted with high-end Imbema lock that makes it easy to check when, where and by whom the container has been opened. The lock also makes it possible to personalize or block access to the container. With the help of geo-fencing, it is even possible to open the lock only at set locations (such as at customs).


The roof of the container is mounted with HyET Solar Powerfoil which provides power to the battery system that powers the sensors. It ensures a steady supply of power during transit, so the batteries are continually charged and maintain power supply to in-container systems.


Containers take long trips in harsh conditions. A safe and sustainable storage solution is needed. The container has lead crystal batteries from Betta Batteries that use a crystalized electrolyte. It provides the safety of gel batteries, price of a lead-acid batteries, and performance of Lithium batteries.


Esri technology is used to locate, track, map, and provide contextual geographic information. It brings real-time data integration and spatial analytics with map visualization, agile developer tools for web and mobile application development, along with a global library of geographic, demographic, and business data.


Intel’s Connected Logistics Platform provides near real-time supply chain visibility. It monitors the location, quality, and integrity of cargo at every stage of the supply chain, around the world. Companies, use this data to mitigate risk, improve operational efficiencies and reduce supply chain costs.


The Port of Rotterdam processes 470 million ton of goods and handles 30,000 ships and 120,000 inland vessels every year. It uses an IoT platform to collect and process data from sensors installed throughout the port area. This provides real-time information on the local infrastructure, water and air quality. Digitizing containers enables the port to offer even safer and faster services.


Cisco’s E-LAN, industrial routers provide Kinetic (Cloud) Services. It connects the Port’s sensor data and synthesizes it to automate port operations.  and


Streamlined processing of containers require automated ports and smart ships that interact through digital handshakes. This project uses AWAKE.AI to optimize operations.


Container 42 is mounted with an array of sensors that continuously transmit its condition and location to a central dashboard that you can view at

we are 42 screenshot We Are 42

The efficiency of global supply chains is improving with IoT enabled containers. This will increase further with autonomous ships and automated ports.


Deepak Puri is an IoT expert and the cofounder of DemLabs, a SF-based non-profit hub for technology innovation in support of democracy. Formerly he held executive positions at Oracle, Netscape and VMware.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Deepak Puri and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications Inc. or its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.