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2021 is the year of cold chain, and AIoT is here to help

2021 is the year of cold chain, and AIoT is here to help
Especially with the rollout of COVID vaccines, cold chain has gained wider awareness and recognition this year. Luckily, today AI and IoT can play a significant role in this regard.
Cold chain is the delivery of products in a strictly temperature-controlled environment. Especially with the rollout of COVID vaccines, cold chain has gained wider awareness and recognition this year. Luckily, today AI and IoT can play a significant role in this regard.
It now seems the endgame in the fight against COVID-19 is heavily dependent on vaccines, which have been rolled out by several large pharmaceutical companies. Before, we discussed the security aspect of COVID vaccine transport. Another important aspect is to keep the vaccines “cold” throughout the delivery.

[Risks of COVID-19 vaccine transport and how to deal with them]
This is where cold chain plays a critical role. The technology enables products to be kept in a strictly temperature-controlled environment. This makes cold chain especially ideal, and needed, for certain verticals.
“Among various implementations of cold chain monitoring, a few are particularly worth mentioning and analyzing in detail. The very first is the health industry, because of the very strict conditions that have to be met there. For example, the temperature of certain vaccines and drugs needs to be monitored constantly throughout: starting from the clinical laboratory and ending in the doctor’s office,” said Tomasz Mazan, Product Manager at AVSystem.
“No less important is the cold chain in the retail and food industry. There is a variety of fresh and frozen foods (such as fruit and vegetables, meat, fish and dairy) that are fragile enough that keeping them outside of the cold chain could not only spoil them, but more importantly pose a serious health concern,” Mazan added.
In fact, given the growing importance of cold chain delivery, demands are set to increase. According to MarketsandMarkets, the global cold chain market size is estimated to be valued at US$233.8 billion in 2020 and projected to reach $340.3 billion by 2025, recording a compound annual growth rate of 7.8 percent.
And a large part of that growth will likely be coming from COVID vaccine deliveries.
“The distribution relies on cold chain to an even greater extent than it did before, for two reasons. Firstly, we’re talking about pharmaceuticals which are of critical importance in managing and eventually solving this rolling pandemic, and in high demand around the world. Secondly, mRNA-based vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) are extremely fragile with regard to storing conditions at every single stage. Frozen vaccines must be held in a temperature between -60 and -90 Celsius degrees. Once they’ve been defrosted, they must be kept at a temperature between 2 and 8°C and utilized within 120 hours at the most. At room temperature, there’s even less time: only 6 hours,” Mazan said.
“COVID vaccines, such as those made by Pfizer and Moderna, rely on cold chain logistics. It is very likely that, in the near-immediate term, there will be a growth in demand for cold chains, but we cannot necessarily take that as a cause or an indicator for the longer term. At the very least, we can expect to see the importance of cold chains becoming more pronounced among the general population,” said Naveen Joshi, Director at Allerin.

AIoT in action in cold chain

Before, cold chain was primarily done by manual logging of temperature. This led to various difficulties. Truckers or delivery personnel, for example, may read the gauges wrong. Worse, they could write fake numbers just to fill in for missed readings.
This is where IoT sensors and AI can come in to play a key role. “Obviously, for certain kinds of goods (like the vaccines) we cannot rely on such poor data. IoT solutions allow logistics companies, pharmacies, and medical staff to use the most relevant, trusted information, provided by sensors and systems that register all critical factors and conditions at all times. All parties involved benefit from working on 100 percent accurate data and may adjust their processes accordingly to increase efficiency and safety,” Mazan said.
“IoT adds a greater layer of visibility and control over not just the goods being transported, but also the other components of the supply chain, maximizing the efficiency and effectiveness of cold chains,” Joshi said.
IoT is all about sensors that generate data to be analyzed for further business intelligence. Sensors and other devices play an important role in cold chain as well. Temperature sensors, for example, automatically log temperatures in intervals preset by the user.
“As was said, a temperature sensor is an absolute must. It may be efficient enough, if all parties engaged in the supply chain can be 100 percent trusted regarding internal procedures, especially quality assurance. In fact, the process is always liable to human error which may cause some issues. That is why we should rely more on technology and use more advanced solutions to trace additional factors, such as sunlight sensors, door opening timers, or some extra sensors (or temperature sensitive markers) per each batch of doses,” Mazan said.
Transmission technologies vary, depending on the vendor. “While 5G networks are entering the market, there are still lots of working solutions for connectivity that use well-established standards, like LTE-M or even more commonly adopted LTE (4G) networks,” Mazan said. “What matters these days is not only the network communication layer. For IoT devices, the communication protocol is important as well. LwM2M, as the more efficient option in comparison to MQTT, is conquering the market slowly but surely.”
Yet the real magic lies in AI, which can make sense of the data gathered in the cold chain logistics. This will then help end users optimize and plan for future improvements. “AI can definitely add value to cold chain logistics. Any area in a cold chain that involves repetitive tasks or data processing can be bolstered with the help of AI. As a simple example, AI can be used to process the information generated by the sensors and compile detailed reports for analysis. It can also be used to control the actuators in the cold chain, such as those regulating the cooling systems, to make the cold chain operations more automated,” Joshi said.

Challenges in AIoT-based cold chain

Deploying AIoT in cold chain is subject to the same challenges in other IoT applications. One is the existence of various protocols. Devices use different languages to communicate, making deployment more difficult.
The second set of challenges concerns all pieces of software solution for data processing, analytics, AI, and presentation to various groups of stakeholders involved in cold chain logistics. “Vaccine logistics involve medical staff, drivers, technicians, etc., and the more roles you have, the more complicated your final solution will be. To address all possible aspects of accessing the data and making it well-aligned with personas, application enablement platforms enter the game. Our approach is to build and deploy mature solutions for any vertical. At the same time, our platform enables you to adjust final solutions on-the-fly, if needed,” Mazan said.
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