StarTrack delivers wireless overhaul

Mixed protocols remain overly complex

National freight and logistics company StarTrack Express is upgrading its wireless communications infrastructure with the ultimate goal of having real-time visibility of freight locations and delivery processes.

StarTrack Express national systems manager Joseph Earl said the company's existing legacy batch process had reached end-of-life.

"The previous environment was batch process with the [handheld] scanners put into a cradle to download data," Earl said. "We were faced with ageing technology and the scanners were also approaching end-of-life."

StarTrack has its own radio network to provide wireless communications, but it is looking to more to a standard carrier offering to reduce operational complexity.

Also, with some 1500 scanners on the road, the previous systems needed to be brought offline and manually updated if new software was required.

Speaking at this year's Wireless World conference in Sydney, Earl said the goal of business is to manage it in real time and provide every driver with real-time visibility of freight locations, and the best way to achieve this is with a "robust and secure" communications interface, and small devices for portability.

StarTrack broke its decision making process into three areas considering device form factor, battery life, and the scan engine - either laser or CCD cameras.

"From a technical perspective we looked at communications protocols available to us," Earl said. "We didn't need high bandwidth but did need coverage. And we looked at how well the tech would handle different environments."

One example of a dilemma StarTrack faced when choosing an appropriate device was scanners with two built-in protocols, but the battery life was prohibitively short.

"We opted for a smaller device," Earl said. "To communicate out on the road we had Bluetooth and 802.11 base stations in the truck but wireless became too complicated. We opted for cradles in trucks."

The new solution comprised of small-size Symbol laser scanners, which Earl says no longer give the drivers any problems.

With the size of StarTrack's fleet now at the stage where the company needed to know where they were at any time, it purchased a product from Minorplanet to provide location information.

"We have 30 depots around Australia and can now deploy the nearest truck," Earl said.

Culturally, Earl said there is always resistance to change so "you have to sell the concept to the organization".

For security, StarTrack is unable to run antivirus software on the devices as they are not powerful enough, but Earl is confident the closed nature of the network will shield it from outside threats.

For the future StarTrack is preparing to deal with greater complexity in its applications, which are moving from DOS to Windows and adding functionality, integrating its delivery systems with enterprise applications, and is developing software that can be ported to new operating systems.

Also in the innovation pipeline is proof of delivery downloaded in real time, with Telstra's NextG mobile network slated to replace 802.11 and GPRS.

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