There are few people who understand the difficulty of moving defence equipment across borders better than Ennio Zanotti, president and CEO of Zenatek Group, which provides an etracking solution to improve military logistics. Ask him what can go wrong, and he reels off a seemingly endless list of anecdotes and stories.
On one occasion, while working deep inside the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zanotti lost contact with a vehicle after the local telephone network went down. "We were very worried," he recalls. "We were transporting important drugs and vaccines. Thankfully, after one or two days, the information arrived, and we found out the temperature and goods were alright."
Another case involved a train wagon crash. "We didn't know exactly what had happened because the client had forgotten to update the crash intensity on our web application," he explains. "We weren't aware of how big the crash was, which meant we were afraid the load could have fallen off the wagon entirely."
Yet another incident involved two containers travelling to Banda Abbas in Southern Iran, en route to Afghanistan. "During the journey, the temperature of the containers started to go down," Zanotti says. "The client was worried and phoned the transporter, who said that things were in order. It turned out the driver had switched off the refrigerating system while they were sleeping because they didn't like the noise."
While the client managed to 'save' the goods in all cases, they underscore the challenges involved in transporting goods in hostile and remote places. Containers can be stolen, lost or broken; they can be opened by careless custom officials at airports and harbours; they can be damaged by extreme weather; and they can be delayed by planes, traffic jams or, in the case of a place like Congo, complete absence of infrastructure.
"Just think about trucks travelling in Europe," Zanotti says. "They say nearly 3% have their goods stolen. These are statistics that, of course, never make it to the news because the clients don't want them to appear. But it happens quite often, particularly if you are travelling to Africa on UN missions or with the military, and, particularly, if it is ammunition being transported. It is a big problem.
"Lost, misplaced or delayed goods can cost money and damage reputations, especially if they include sensitive equipment or perishable items. Those waiting to receive the goods - in particular, troops - may also suffer consequences by not getting the equipment and food they need."
In response to this critical challenge, the company created the Zenatek Tracking System (ZTS). Using sophisticated sensors, ZTS can precisely monitor different environmental and security conditions, and detect any unauthorised movements, and temperature and humidity changes. This information is then provided through a user-friendly web application, which can be easily accessed by clients using their PCs, tablets or mobile phones.
"ZTS will alert you when goods are pilfered, somebody who shouldn't open the container gets hold of it, or - in the case of refrigerated containers - there are temperature and humidity excursions," Zanotti explains. "This is very important and can save companies a lot of money. For example, imagine if a load is below the required temperature and is going to a difficult location, say, Africa, the Middle East or Asia. If you know the temperature or humidity went wrong, you at least have time to send replacements. To be informed straight away when the problem arises is, therefore, of major importance to clients."
This is particularly critical when transporting medicines or vaccines into the field, he adds. "Temperature and humidity is very important in this regard. The tracking of humidity is actually a new feature of our website that is specifically aimed at drug companies. Tracking and controlling temperature and humidity gives a big boost to our clients' credibility."
While the ZTS web platform allows end users to determine the location of their cargo within a few metres anywhere in the world, for Zanotti, the most important feature is knowing whether the goods are safe or not.
"Some organisations want to have a system that will transmit the position of the container every half an hour," he says. "Our system allows this, and you can actually vary the timing of the updates: every half an hour, every six hours, once a day and so on. But it is the alarm and alert system that is really important for us and our clients. If something goes wrong - if a container or pallet is lost or somebody has opened it, for example - you need to know that immediately. It is more important to know exactly when and where problems occur than to receive lots of updates in a short space of time."
As well as offering an alert system, ZTS can store critical information in its web-based application. This includes, for example, a container's packing list, health certificates and even lading documents supplied by the shipper days after departure. "Clients can load any documentation necessary on to the web application," says Zanotti. "They can also give the password to the receiver, who can then download all of the information. Say, a client is sending goods on behalf of an international organisation that has troops around the world. All you need, in this case, is to provide the password. The client can then discover where the shipment is, if it is being kept at the right temperature and in the right order, and whether it has remained untouched."
Unlike other tracking systems in the defence space, Zanotti says ZTS was designed to be as affordable as possible. "This is important because a container going to China is around $2,000 of transport," he says. "You cannot then charge $800 extra for a tracker. Our cost is not even 10% of the cost of transport, so it is affordable."
According to Zanotti, this is achieved by using a combination of GPS and GPRS technology rather than satellites. "Some armies use a satellite system, which is expensive," he explains. "Firstly, it is bulky because if you have a transmission every half an hour, you need big batteries. That obviously costs money. Secondly, they may charge for the system and the information received by the satellites separately, which means you may have to pay a monthly fee as well as for the actual service. Thirdly, the item often has to come back to the origin country. In some places, such as Afghanistan, there is a national postal service that allows you to send it back for $50. But in other places, such as Africa, there is no national postal service. Our combined technology is much cheaper. We have a contract worldwide with Vodafone, which enables us to keep the costs affordable. Moreover, ZTS devices need not be retrieved at destination points because all traced route and shipment information is in the system and has already been transmitted - the devices may be used on a 'one-way' basis."
Zenatek also avoids using radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, which is common in the tracking industry. "RFID is very interesting, and we see a brilliant future for it in various operations," Zanotti says. "However, mature RFID technology requires potentially expensive local infrastructure and constant maintenance. This makes operations very rigid. Cost and inflexibility are two factors that we know are important for clients to consider, as are the lack of fluidity and rapid change during logistical operations. ZTS leaves RFID technology - and its associated problems and expenses - behind."
ZTS is regularly updated to include the most cutting-edge technology. For the most recent edition, he says, "We enlarged our platform information with functions like the 'crash threshold', which can be decided by the client. Humidity features were also improved, as was the quality of the sensor. The quality of the sensor is important for getting a correct humidity reading. Another interesting added feature is the 'electronic fencing' that allows the client to be alerted if the item is moved from the original desired location"
As well as adding new features, Zanotti hopes more people will come to appreciate the importance of good tracking technology in the coming years.
"The people who manage logistics or have suffered delivery problems before are often keen to have our system but the people in charge of the buying don't always find it so important," he continues. "That is a big problem. Sometimes we have to go up the decision-making ladder and end up talking to a person who just doesn't realise how important it is to avoid something being lost, damaged or pilfered. In the future, though, I think more people will see that our system is effective and affordable, and they will adopt it."