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Drop Tag: Keeping Tabs on Parcels

Tue, 04/23/2013 - 9:27am
Meaghan Ziemba, Editor, WDD

Cambridge Consultants’ new sensor system and app concept shows what happens to packages in transit, helping to deliver peace of mind to consumers.

We all get a little nervous mailing out packages that have “FRAGILE” written Stamped on the side; keeping our fingers crossed that the contents won’t get damaged, squished, or broken during their transit to point B. MA-based Cambridge Consultants now offers a solution to help calm our nerves when we leave the fate of our fragile merchandise in the hands of delivery companies. DropTag is a sensor system and app concept that not only shows what’s happened to a package in transit, but also ends the risk of signing for a delivery without unpacking and checking the merchandise first.

“The explosion in Internet shopping has led to a huge increase in the number of package deliveries,” explains Tom Lawrie-Fussey, business development manager at Cambridge Consultants. “But we are probably all guilty of signing a delivery on our doorstep without taking the time to unpack the items to check that the contents are in good condition. We’re then faced with the hassle of having to arrange the return of any damaged goods.”

According toLawrie-Fussey, DropTag is different from existing monitoring systems, because it’s a simple, low-cost sensor platform with connectivity via Bluetooth Low Energy. “We’ve developed a simple app, which shows what [has] happened to a package in transit,” he says. Cambridge Consultants also created a plot mode within the app so customers can get a more detailed analysis of their merchandise.

The design is very simple and straightforward with off-the-shelf components. Featuring an antenna, coin cell battery, and a sensor – which can varies depending on the design – all of the components fit on a small 15 x 15 mm PCB that can be sold at very low costs.

A lithium-ion battery could have been incorporated into the design, giving it the capability to be recharged, but that would have increased the cost and added to the complexity of the design, which would require sockets for the charging cables. “We've concentrated on advanced power management strategies to ensure battery longevity, rather than rethinking how the device could be charged,” says Lawrie-Fussey. The coin cell battery can last weeks, if not months, which is more than enough time to track a package.

Connecting to Everything

What makes DropTag unique compared to traditional monitoring systems is its ability to connect to everything. It gives consumers all the information concerning the merchandise, while also providing the ability to share that information with the end customer who is waiting for the package to be delivered. The logistics companies, who want to know what the condition information is, are also provided the information.

“It should be a win-win,” says Lawrie-Fussey. “It’s not just benefitting the end user who needs to sign for the package; it’s also benefitting the company that is delivering the package, because they are able to know a lot more about the conditions of the package while it is in transit.”

At the moment DropTag is still in the development stage and is currently only used as a demonstrator, but Lawrie if Cambridge Consultants can find a developer to manufacture the product, the general idea would be to have the DropTag electronics directly attach to the goods within the box. The box would then get a sticker that would state it was a DropTag enabled package.

“If it does become an external stick-on device, we will have to do more environmental testing, so if the package does get dropped, then the DropTag won’t break,” says Lawrie-Fussey.

Cambridge Consultants utilizes Bluetooth Low Energy over other wireless technologies to maintain the range element of the connectivity. “With Bluetooth Low Energy, there is a 50-meter indoor range that allows you to interrogate the device without having it right in front of you,” says Lawrie-Fussey.

The sensor can be remotely interrogated at any stage of the delivery process – with a maximum range of about 160 feet indoors. So, as the package is moved around in a warehouse or carried in the back of a van, smart handsets remotely and automatically check the package at each stage of its journey. The package's status is reported back to headquarters and allows an early, proactive response to any incident.

Cambridge Consultants’ primary challenge was squeezing as much out of DropTag as it could regarding the amount of components that they could get away with; the number of off-the-shelf components they could use to bring the cost and complexity down; and how simple they could make the design.

Cambridge Consultants is also focusing some of its time on how to improve the DropTag’s power management strategy. “This device can last for a number of weeks, maybe months, on a single coin cell battery,” says Lawrie-Fussey. “Also, there is still a lot to be done in terms of manipulating and improving that code that makes sure DropTag is in effect no matter what its location.”

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