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Internet of things

18/03/2016

Traxens has invented smart containers

TRAX-BOX - © TRAXENS

Last September, when a container disappeared from the Port of Montreal, it took two days to find it... by which time it had been emptied of its load of silver ingots worth 10 million dollars. If this container had been equipped with the device created by TRAXENS in collaboration with the Fun project team of Inria Lille - North Europe, this expensive misadventure might have been able to be avoided.

Le Havre, 6 October 2015. François Hollande cuts a ribbon in the colours of the French flag and a moment later a bottle of Champagne smashes onto the huge dark blue hull of the ship. The Bougainville is officially inaugurated, ready to depart on its first major journey. Its course takes it initially to Northern Europe. Then it will head to Malta, Suez, the United Arab Emirates and Chinese ports. On this Autumn morning, there's a good reason for the presence of the President of the Republic at the launch of this vessel: at 398 metres long and 54 metres wide, with 22 levels of containers, this is the largest French container ship and one of the four or five largest that have ever sailed the world's oceans. But these gigantic dimensions are not the only exceptional characteristics of the new flagship of the Marseille company CGA-CGM. The feature that we're interested in is invisible to the naked eye, attached to the 18 000 containers that it will carry every year. It consists of a small box covered in blue plastic and marked with the logo of TRAXENS, a start-up that is also based in Marseille. "Each of these TRAX-BOXES is covered in sensors , explains Tim Baker, the TRAXENS marketing and communication director. Using the data relayed to our TRAX-HUB platform, it's possible to find out everything about the container in which the TRAX-BOX is located: its precise location, the temperature there, the humidity level, the level of vibrations it experiences, opening of doors, etc. And this information is available at all points of its journey, whether on a freight train, out at sea or at a transit port. "

Big data off the beaten track

Tim Baker - © TRAXENS

These boxes and all of the associated infrastructure are the result of four years of research and development. For Michel Fallah and Pascal Daragon, the founders of TRAXENS, their ambitions were clear from the start: to design abig datasolution that would benefit all those active in international trade – shipowners, transport companies, logistics operators, manufacturers, etc.- those for whom the tracking and monitoring of containers represents a key challenge, in terms of both security and profitability. But, in order to achieve this objective, a device would still be needed that would be capable of collecting, storing, processing and transmitting data, frequently in extreme conditions and at an attractive price. "We very quickly understood that the road ahead to achieve our objectives was not completely mapped out , says Tim Baker with a smile. Scientific partnerships have emerged as the best way to overcome the technological obstacles identified in terms of cryptography, network technologies, or energy optimisation ."

Scientific partnerships have emerged as the best way to overcome the technological obstacles identified in terms of cryptography, network technologies, or energy optimisation

Fun in containers

It is this last issue that resulted in the role of Fun, the project team of Inria Lille - Northern Europe, directed by Nathalie Mitton. "The partnership was established in 2012, a few months after the creation of the start-up , recalls Natale Guzzo, now an R&D engineer with TRAXENS. Personally, I was about to complete a six-month internship with Fun after training as an electronics engineer at the University of Calabria. One day Pascal Daragon headed North to meet Nathalie Mitton and present the project. Subsequently both of them became joint tutors of the CIFRE thesis that I began in October 2012 and presented at the end of 2015. "  The issue? How to design the communication battery for the TRAXENS device, with the aim of creating a universal system that is extremely resistant and sufficiently energy-efficient to give it a long lifetime, of three to ten years. "The focus on power consumption is a far from minor detail, explains Tim Baker. This is the very foundation of our economic model: the cost of changing the battery is about 50 € per container and if a new battery had to be installed every year, the price of our product would simply be prohibitive for our customers. " During the first few months Natale Guzzo focused her efforts on the search for an ad hoc technical solution "but as I made comparisons I realised that there was no such solution on the market yet. This meant I needed to develop my own system, which I then simulated and ran experiments on two Inria tools - WSNet and the IoT-LAB FIT platform - prior to testing it in a real environment. "

Advantages of collaboration…

Natale Guzzo - © TRAXENS

The research work performed by Natale Guzzo led to creation of a collaborative multi-hop network called TRAX-NET, which was recently the subject of three national patents and two international patents filed jointly by TRAXENS and Inria. In concrete terms, TRAX-NET allows the TRAX-BOXES to communicate with each other and, several times a day, to select those that will serve as head-end equipment, depending on the status of their battery and their position in relation to the GSM signal or satellite. During the time for which it is selected for this function, each head-end will collect and transmit the data from the boxes that are affiliated with it before handing over to a newly-selected head-end. "Thus, instead of mobilising the batteries of hundreds of boxes in order to hook up with the GSM – which would be both unreliable and inefficient in terms of energy - the function is implemented on several entities. As a result, the batteries last far longer and we consume far less GSM data , points out Tim Baker. In addition, TRAX-NET presents another advantage compared with competing systems, most of which consist of a single-hop network: due to the multi-hop scenario that is used to implement communication in a series of small steps, it has a longer range. "

What next?

Today, as the first 18 000 boxes of the TRAXENS fleet go into their second six months of use, the future looks highly promising for this Marseille start-up, with two successful capital increases recorded in its assets just 8 months apart and a prize of 2 million euros gained in the international Innovation competition. "The CGA-CGM group has already scheduled use of this equipment in 100,000 of its containers, adds Tim Baker. And if we have successfully won over the third largest shipowner in the world, we have high hopes that there will soon be interest from other major entities. " And the playing field available to TRAXENS is one of the most massive available: there are currently some 35 million containers travelling back and forth on the world's seas and oceans.

The CMA CGM Bougainville - Hummelhummel (CC BY-SA 3.0)

On the TRAXENS routes

The genesis of TRAXENS takes us back to the very start of the millennium when an initial meeting took place between Michel Fallah who was then head of a company specialising in RFID technology, and the president of CGA-CGM. At that time, the former confided to the latter that he would love to be able to equip his fleet of two million containers with some electronics. The idea stopped there, at least for a decade or so, until Michel Fallah remembered that discussion and mentioned it to his friend Pascal Daragon, an expert in onboard systems. In 2012 the two associates took the plunge into the world of maritime transport, with the creation of TRAXENS. In the first three years of its life, the startup focused purely on R&D, with a handful of employees, but no fewer than five active partnerships with research laboratories. In 2015 the proof of the concept was ready. Following on from this point, the relations between the start-up and CGA-CGM reached a decisive turning point with an initial order and an equity investment. Today, TRAXENS has nearly forty employees, including Natale Guzzo, taken on on a permanent contract after completing his thesis. His solution has just received the second Big Data Trophy at the trade show of the same name in Paris and discussions are under way with many shipowners, major manufacturers and other interested entities.

Keywords: Transport Internet of things Multi-hop network Big data Network of sensors Logistics

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