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The Inevitable Rise of the Internet of Shipping Containers

​Is this the dawn of the smart shipping container?

The shipping container has become the ubiquitous mechanism of logistics, its generic shape and size an iconic symbol of globalization itself. By standardizing how cargo is packaged and moved, it has streamlined costs to an extent that has transformed global economics.

The container, and the vast infrastructure of trucks, ships, and mega-ports that move them, have reduced shipping costs and times enough to transform where industrial manufacturing and agricultural production can be located. It's because of containers that pretty much everything you consume—from electronic gadgets to bananas—can be manufactured or grown where the labour costs are lowest, and shipped halfway around the world to you without it impacting how much you pay for them. It's the shipping container that has tipped the global economic balance, allowing the economies of nations like China and India to explode.

But with millions of boxes circulating the world everyday, making sure they get from point A to point B has become a hugely complex problem, and one that's increasingly managed by computer networks and algorithms rather than people. At present, containers are tracked via a complex system of identification numbers and barcodes, which allow them to be checked in and out of ports and other distribution hubs, or on and off flatbed trucks and vast containerships. But apart from these connecting points, the individual container is largely off-grid and dumb, unable to be monitored or contacted by those who depend on its cargo being delivered safely or on time. It opens up a whole barrage of security holes and opportunities for the system to be exploited.

This might be about to change, and, surprisingly, it could be thanks to the once-popular smartphone maker Blackberry. By plugging each lowly container directly into a network, Blackberry wants to make sure they can never be lost, misused, or hidden. It wants to make them aware of their location, its surroundings, its status. It wants to make containers smart.

In an interview with Indian Express, the president of Blackberry's Technology Solutions lab Dr. Sandeep Chennakeshu revealed a new, as-yet unnamed device—a 20mm weatherproof box that can be used to retrofit existing containers and hook them up to the network.

"You can fix it to containers that carry highly valuable goods" he explained, "and since it has GPS, sensors and a cellular modem it can measure temperature, humidity pressure and movement. It can also figure out the location, if someone has opened the door, and cargo levels in the container and send the data securely to the cloud."

What makes the self-powered box revolutionary is its claim to have a battery with a five-year lifespan, meaning that in theory it could be installed in any existing container, instantly turning it into a monitor-able, controllable, data collecting node in the already incredibly complex supply chain network, and one that understands more about its status than the humans that put it there.

These containers seem to have more agency in the decision-making process than the humans on the ship

This may sound futuristic, but it's already started happening. As generic, interchangeable, and ubiquitous as they seem, the reality is that not all containers are created equal. Last year I spent a week on a Maersk container ship as it travelled between the mega-ports of the China sea.

I was first introduced to 'reefers': containers outfitted to be advanced climate-controlled, computer monitored micro-environments, plumbed directly into the ship's power supply. Used to move everything from food to pharmaceuticals, the reefers on the cargo ship I rode were mainly carrying fish meal—processed fish guts used for fertilization and feeding cattle, exported from Chile and headed to China—one of the few items to flow that direction through the supply chain in large quantities.

The reefers highlight the changing role of human crew in what is an increasingly automated system. Unlike the other containers on the ship, which were little more than anonymous boxes to human eyes, their contents, origins, and destinations unknown, the reefers presented one of the few direct responsibilities the crew had for looking after their cargo.

It was the crew's duty to ensure they constantly had power, were maintaining the right temperature, and to repair them if they malfunctioned. But even then the crew's relationship to the reefers was heavily mediated by technology: not only are the reefers smart enough to know when something has gone wrong, but they're picky about who they tell when it does. Connected directly to Maersk's global network, when something fails, they don't tell the crew directly, but instead call home—thousands of miles back to the company's computers in Denmark, who in turn relay the message to the ship's captain, who then tells the crew what to do.

These containers seem to have more agency in the decision-making process than the humans on the ship, something starkly illustrated by how painfully slow internet access was out at sea. The crew patiently used the sluggish internet to check email, update Facebook, and keep in touch with their families while away at sea for months, piggybacking off the reefer network: a tiny, almost token, sliver of the machine's precious bandwidth given over to human use.

Fitting perhaps, in a vast container-moving network where humans are increasingly caretakers rather than decision-makers, and where they could soon find themselves knowing less about how it all works than the the containers themselves.