Tracking North

SATELLITE tracking capabilities have been extended to Alaska, which had been the largest uncovered section of the United States. A pilot test, which will continue through December, is underway to measure the effectiveness of the coverage.

Sponsored by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the operational test started October 7 and involves four trucking companies that handle most of the secure Department of Defense (DOD) shipments in Alaska. FMCSA also is sponsoring a satellite-tracking test in Hawaii, which also lacked effective coverage in the past.

Even before the official start of the Alaska evaluation, positive reviews were coming from the fleets. “We especially see the safety benefits of satellite tracking and communication,” says Harry McDonald, president of Carlile Transportation Systems in Anchorage. “Our drivers operate in some remote sections of the state, and it used to take six to 10 hours to report a vehicle breakdown or other problem. Reports had to be relayed by two-way radio from one truck to another back to our terminals in Anchorage and Fairbanks. It's much better now with the satellite communication system.”

Carlile Transportation actually has been using satellite tracking and communications to a limited degree for about three years. The carrier expects to have its tractor fleet fully outfitted with satellite tracking units by the end of 2005.

“We definitely want satellite tracking on all of our linehaul tractors,” says Lisa Marquiss, regulatory compliance director at Carlile Transportation. “We believe the satellite system will pay for itself in about two years. We are looking at a less expensive tracking system for local trucks.”

Selected carriers

That level of experience is one reason the carrier was selected to participate in a special demonstration of Operation Respond, which will be held November 4 at the State of Alaska Public Health Lab in Anchorage. The demonstration will take place during the quarterly meeting of the Alaska State Wide Hazardous Materials Working Group. Scheduled from 9 am to noon, the program will include tracking a truckload of hazardous materials that becomes involved in a series of incidents.

Operation Respond was developed initially for the rail industry in 1995 and was expanded to include trucking. Operation Respond Institute, a public/private partnership, provides emergency responders with technology-based tools to help ensure that the first responder does not become the first victim.

In addition to Carlile Transportation, Alaska test participants include Alaska West Express, Lynden Transport Inc, and Weaver Brothers Inc. All four fleets operate across Alaska, and three of the companies (Carlile Transportation, Alaska West, and Weaver Brothers) have mixed fleets that include tank trailers. Carrier equipment involved in the test includes 105 tractors and 20 trailers.

FMCSA provided the test funding, which included the cost of 75 Qualcomm satellite units provided to the fleets. Also involved in the pilot test are Skybitz untethered trailer tracking units.

Test preparation

Preparation for the test began in early 2005. Satellite hardware was shipped to the carriers over about a six-month period. Most importantly, Qualcomm Inc leased a new transponder on a commercial satellite to enable the expanded coverage of Alaska and Hawaii.

“We also fine-tuned our tracking capabilities,” says Mark Bauckman, Qualcomm director of business development. “As a result of these changes, we have significantly reduced the areas of the United States where there is limited or no satellite coverage. In Alaska, for instance, we now have good coverage except in the most distant islands of the Aleutian chain.”

Qualcomm took steps to ensure reliable performance from the truck-mounted satellite communication hardware. “Our equipment is already robust,” Bauckman says. “However, we did make some modifications, such as adding heated antennas, to overcome the challenges of the Alaska winter.”

For the carriers, key objectives of the pilot test are to improve communications and operating efficiencies. Shippers are looking for better logistics planning and coordination, especially for high-value shipments.

At Carlile Transportation, the focus will be on back-office capabilities. “We've been using satellite tracking for long enough that we know it works,” McDonald says. “Our objective is to use the satellite system to improve efficiency. We plan to link it with our dispatch operation.”

Field performance

Fleet managers at Alaska West and Weaver Brothers will be more interested in how the equipment performs in the field. Alaska West installed its first Qualcomm units about a year ago to meet DOD requirements for secure shipments. Weaver Brothers had no satellite tracking equipment until it was tapped for the FMCSA test.

Dave Johnson, Alaska West Fairbanks terminal manager, says his company has already seen a clear improvement in satellite coverage. “We still have a few dead spots around mountains, but the tracking and communication is much better,” he says. “We've never had communication that was this good, especially on the Haul Road to Prudhoe Bay.”

Agreement on the improved communication comes from A B Brown, Weaver Brothers' Anchorage terminal assistant manager. “We can track our rigs all the way into Canada,” he says. “We like the security features, such as the panic button, that are part of this test.”

Alaska government officials also have certain expectations for the pilot test, according to Bauckman. Alaska's Department of Transportation wants the ability to track and monitor hazardous materials shipments that are moving across the state. It also seeks a reliable means to expedite incident notification.

FMCSA objectives

At the federal level, FMCSA laid out the following objectives: The goal is to test an effective wireless satellite-based communications tracking system to monitor hazardous materials and high-value cargo in previously uncovered areas of the United States.

It is expected that communication improvements will enhance the safety and security of tractors, trailers, and shipments in the regions of the United States that have coverage, according to Amy Houser, FMCSA's Office of Research and Technology. It is hoped that the pilot test will demonstrate improved trucking operations in each phase of the shipment process — pick up, delivery, receipt, and storage.

Test requirements include messaging capabilities. The system must have the ability to transmit text messages and macros between the tractors and dispatch. Mapping is a crucial part of the test. The system must be able to provide regular vehicle location updates. Trailer connect and disconnect activities must be logged.

Panic buttons are required on the test units. FMCSA called for a panic-button arrangement that when activated will automatically send out an alert message to fleet dispatchers displaying time, date, and location.

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