Covid-19 vaccine shipments – a defining public proof-point for IoT tracking?
If there was ever a critical proof-point for the efficacy of IoT technologies, then this is it: the coordinated global shipment of coronavirus (Covid-19) vaccines. This is the moment, arguably, in late 2020, going into 2021, when the world’s gaze falls obliquely on the covert industrial trend of massive-scale ‘sensorization’. This is the time when the world appears critically reliant on the twin IoT disciplines of asset tracking and asset monitoring.
Let us back up; current recommendations around the supply-chain handling of the two main Covid-19 vaccines, from Pfizer and Moderna, vary. The Moderna vaccine needs to be frozen at -20 degrees Celsius, similar to a regular freezer; the Pfizer vaccine has to be kept at -70 degrees Celsius, closer to winter temperatures in Antarctica.
While the first still requires temperature controls and special handling, it can be stored at freezer temperatures for six months, and can last in the fridge for 30 days after thawing; it can also be kept at room temperature for 12 hours. By contrast, the second comes in temperature-controlled shipping boxes, dubbed ‘pizza boxes’, which use dry ice to maintain temperature, and cannot be opened more than twice a day (and cannot be open for more than 60 seconds).
These are tight rules for the medical supply chain, both ways. Pfizer, with the most stringent, has shared three options for hospital-side storage: commercially-available ultra low-temperature freezers (offering a shelf life of six months); Pfizer’s own thermal shipping containers (30 days, if re-gassed every five); and standard hospital refrigeration units (which can extend the life of doses in shipping units by a further five days).
Pfizer has released a fact sheet about shipping, distribution, and storage. One of the most interesting pieces is its “flexible, just-in-time” strategy to ship the vials directly to the point of use, and remove the ‘middle-man’ from the chain. Sean Riley is senior global industry director at German IT/OT software specialist Software AG; this is where IoT systems are to be put through their paces, he says.
He comments: “This is where we’ll see IoT playing a big role, to ensure seamless, end-to-end shipping to keep the vaccine safe for fast distribution. Monitoring this will be completed by a variety of different industrial IoT sensors and will be somewhat complex. First, a positioning sensor will be needed to identify exact, rather than approximate, location when indoors. This sensor will use a combination of GPS and NFC.
“Depending upon whether the vaccine is housed in its self-managed container or in a temperature-controlled facility, it may have to withstand sub-zero temperatures for significant amounts of time. This means power availability will be a concern. A second sensor will be required to monitor the temperature and will require direct communication to a central platform to ensure temperature maintenance and efficacy.”
But storage is arguably easier than carriage between points. Riley reckons handoff from air to ground transport is the riskiest link in the cold-chain for freight companies, whether they are managed directly by Pfizer or Moderna, or by third-party providers. All parties in the switch need access to live positioning and temperature data to ensure the shipping containers are not just ‘hanging around’ – which means sensors in the containers, as well.
Riley says: “Whether a chemical or a piece of equipment is used to maintain the temperature, [the parties involved need to be able to] intervene before the temperature threshold is breached. [For that] they need to know about the performance of the container, which is where IoT plays a role… to ensure shipments are not ruined.”
So, how is the IoT sensor array in the shipping container and the thermal ‘pizza-box’ connected to the cloud, to disseminate their insights to stakeholders in the supply chain? Everyone in the connectivity space has an opinion on this, and all of them speak with some experience; cold-chain monitoring is hardly new, after all, and just about every wide-area technology, and even meshed-together short-range technologies, have been engaged.
Remi Lorrain, vice chair of the network operator forum and EMEA at the LoRa Alliance, and global LoRaWAN networks director at Semtech, remarks: “Cold-chain monitoring is one of the oldest IoT use cases; the discipline is managing battery consumption – because the asset, like these vaccines, has to go across the globe, and the chip in the sensor has to last some weeks.”
He suggests, of course, that LoRaWAN, the unlicensed low-power wide-area (LPWA) technology that Semtech licences chips for and the LoRa Alliance promotes, is a decent candidate.
Both the LoRa community is working with the Wireless Broadband Association (WBA) to promote the combination of LoRaWAN and Wi-Fi, which has a stronghold already in the healthcare market; Semtech has a new dual-mode chip, which uses a Wi-Fi ‘sniffer’ for location and LoRaWAN transceiver for backhaul. “Battery consumption can be optimised on the Wi-Fi and LoRaWAN chip solution,” he says.
He adds: “The ability to interconnect to the cloud to make the decision to bring alerts is what we have been doing on interoperability at the data management layer. These technologies already play a role in cold-chain monitoring for the food industry, and it is the same principle – if not the same impact – for the healthcare industry, and Covid-19 vaccine transportation. But it is not a new use case for us. It is just the impact is different.”
The cellular community thinks differently, of course. “I think the ship has sailed on LoRaWAN and Sigfox,” says Thierry Sender, director of IoT at Verizon, prompted in an aside, when chatting about something else. We might discuss NB-IoT and LTE-M, the licensed cellular equivalents of these other LPWA technologies, but we are in a conversation about Verizon’s parallel rollouts of multi-access edge compute (MEC) and 5G in the US.
Sender says this connectivity-and-compute combination, backwards compatible with LTE, is well-utilised already for tracking shipments of pharmaceuticals. “When you’re tracking pharmaceuticals, say, and vaccine tracking is a great example, you are leveraging the public LTE or 5G network, as well as what is available on-premise; cellular is a public and private implementation, jointly,” he comments.
“These vaccines need to be shipped at minus-something through distribution, with little or no time above certain thresholds, and the supply chain needs real-time tracking and inventory management for that. Many pharmaceuticals fall into the same bucket. But LTE works fine for a lot of tracking, and it can leverage the MEC infrastructure we are rolling out in the US with 5G – even if it doesn’t offer the same performance as 5G.
He adds: “You don’t need 5G for most of these cases – for sensor tracking of position, temperature, humidity, shock, and so on. And while the world we are going to with 5G is a very different one, LTE is probably going to underpin a lot of the toolset that gets leveraged in 2021.”
There is another angle, here; Vodafone, across the pond, has just played a killer hand in the LPWA game, by organising the tech-side wizardry in German pharmaceuticals firm Bayer’s new NB-IoT-based smart tracking label. The Bayer proposition integrates cellular SIM (iSIM) functionality, as a layout on printable silicon, into the communications module, along with a printable battery, microprocessor, antenna, modem, plus a couple of sensors.
Vodafone has provided the reference design, Arm-owned iSIM specialist Kigen has issued the blueprint, Sony-Altair has designed the chip, and Murata has designed the module. The tracker costs a couple of euros (€5 is the target), and is printable, like any other stick-on postage label. The plan is to slap it onto everything going out of Bayer’s warehouses, starting with bags of agricultural fertilizer, to gather data about their location and condition, and even when the bags are opened for usage.
More than anything else in the busy IoT sector in 2020, the Bayer-Vodafone trickery looks potentially like the ‘real deal’, and the innovation to finally make IoT ‘massive’, in line with the industry’s hyped promise. Sp why won’t it go on Covid-19 vaccines? Because it is too early, it seems, even in the desperate, potentially breakthrough, climate of global crisis, and even where a pharma firm is leading the charge.
But the potential of the smart-label design is writ-large, and might just (speculatively) be made real for Covid-19 tracking in the new year. Trials are gathering pace, and Bayer, which owns the intellectual property, is keen to licence to the wider supply-chain industry, Enterprise IoT Insights understands. And Vodafone says its application is ‘massive’, with a little tweaking here and there.
Jon Lee-Davey, IoT healthcare lead at Vodafone, comments: “It might be restricted in its current configuration to its current application, but completely different use cases will be opened-up when it gets embellished with other sensors. I mean, what if you put an air quality sensor on the same patch, and stick it to a lamppost? What if the same tech is used to monitor when a tub of pills is opened – or when a blister-pack containing anything-you-like is opened?
“It opens up applications that were unobtainable before because of cost or size restrictions. So there is huge potential opened up around different configurations of these various tech innovations – iSIM, flexible printed circuitry, and so on. Going forward, it is a technology we are extremely interested in, and we see massive potential in the market.”
Let’s return to Riley at Software AG, and get away from the question of connectivity. He makes a point – which plays to Software AG’s own tune about IT/OT data integration and IoT data visibility – that there is a technical challenge as well just to ensure the data gets through. “Logistics companies require availability across their networks, with this massive boost in deliveries. Which means infrastructure management and integration technologies play a key role in supporting shipments and data insights.”
He goes on: “What’s important is the data is integrated to ensure systems can speak to one another and provide real-time updates to share temperature and location data. IoT strategies require a solution to connect assets and integrate data in order to analyze data in real-time and ensure truck drivers, logistics managers, and hospital contacts all know where the vaccine is at any moment and whether it’s at the correct temperature.
“It marks a defining moment for IoT, potentially, as there may be significant news coverage around how the vaccines are secured and moved across the world. The capabilities to monitor and secure this cold chain are available now, but the key will be putting them together quickly and in a flexible way. That is where an IoT platform comes into play, as an alternative to cobbling together multiple IoT point solutions.”