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Volume 30, Issue 3

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Thursday, 30 June 2016 00:00

Finders Keepers: Telematics in Disaster Recovery, Prevention, and Personal Safety

Written by  Maria Sotra

In the Fort McMurray forest fire that swept across Canada, recently crossing from Alberta into Saskatchewan, rescue workers have acted bravely, fighting fires, rescuing city buildings and homes, and evacuating residents. One transport company, having removed its staff from the area, became rightfully concerned about the vehicles it had left behind.

The fleet had fitted vehicles with a telematics device, a device that ultimately allows owners and companies to track a vehicle and identify its most recent location and status. But once a vehicle is turned off, this device is designed to send a “heartbeat” every hour for a few days. And, of course, if the fire had destroyed a vehicle, the reporting would stop altogether.

Armed with the serial numbers of each vehicle and an understanding of the device fitted to each of them, the vehicles were sent a software update to the device, effectively “waking up” the device so it could begin to transmit again in 30 minute intervals. Without having to go anywhere near the vehicles or return to the dangerous area, the company was able to continue effectively monitoring its fleet and find relief it had remained intact.

In any disaster situation – whether it be business, natural, or man-made – two concerns are always at the forefront: rescue and recovery. When looking to save people, objects, or business data, the rescue element comes first. Afterwards, it’s about recovery – helping people and businesses return to normal.

Of course, for any rescue operation, knowing where to look using GPS information is a good start. But modern telematics systems are expert at not only tracking location, but also at reporting back on the health of the host – whether that is a vehicle, a piece of machinery, or even a remote worker. In some cases, units that would otherwise fail can be adjusted remotely to ensure continuity.

A market that is growing
The global telematics market is on the rise. Ernst & Young estimates that around 104 million new cars will use some form of telematics connectivity by year 2025. And while there are different valuations put on the current worth of the market, analysts predict it is on the rise. Research firm Visiongain estimates the commercial telematics market will generate $13 billion in revenue this year alone, and rival research firm Markets and Markets predicts it to be worth close to $50 billion by 2020.

Legislation is also driving this growth in the world of commercial vehicles. Recently, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the body that regulates the US trucking industry, issued a mandate on Electronic Logging Devices (ELD), calling for all commercial vehicles to have the technology installed by the end of 2017.

The ELD directive aims to improve road safety by employing technology to help combat driver fatigue and collect data from the engine to monitor its condition, but there are other driver safety and efficiency advantages that fleet companies can enjoy once they have installed the system – and some of these are particularly relevant in emergency situations.

Prevention is better than rescue
When a full fleet is equipped with telematics, managers have the ability to track vehicles in real-time on a map and overlay other relevant data. For example, integrating with the National Weather Service maps can highlight potential issues on a driver’s route, and in terms of extreme conditions, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, along with NASA, can advise on the predicted path of hurricanes and forest fires.

Early re-routing of a vehicle can not only save lives, but also time and money. Needing a vehicle to turn around and head back the way it came in order to find the best route can waste precious time and gas. Equipping an entire fleet with a telematics solution enabled with two-way communication allows fleet managers to send simple messages to all drivers at the same time and receive a reply back. For example: “major accident - avoid Highway 8.”

Learning the lessons from an accident is also important. If a monitored vehicle is involved in a heavy highway accident, the data from the GPS tracker and the local weather conditions can be combined to help find clues that over time might prevent future accidents.

For example, drivers who suffer increased fatigue in adverse weather conditions should therefore be encouraged to take more breaks from driving in poor weather. Importantly, all this data is made anonymous to protect personal privacy – and, indeed, the FMCSA regulations also call for all transmissions to be encrypted.

Big Data can aid recovery and prevent accidents
Telematics has a major role to play in the IoT and Big Data world. Around the globe, many millions of devices are connected using telematics to report vehicle activity and health back to central control areas. As Ernst & Young has reported, the connected car will be commonplace within 10 years, and we are already witnessing the rise of driverless features in cars – beginning with self-parking and ultimately moving towards full automation.

Gathering all the data that will be produced in real time using telematics will tell us a lot about a range of situations in which accidents occur. This will aid accident prevention by providing analysts with the information they need to isolate the patterns of behavior and circumstances that increase the likelihood of an accident. The constant reporting of status and the sharing of information about the status of the device being monitored also makes it easier and faster to reset that device should it fail for any reason. The more you know about a vehicle or a piece of equipment, the easier it becomes to protect and restore it.

Protecting people – not just machinery
In many cases, lone workers are asked to operate in remote locations, difficult conditions and extremes of temperature. With lone worker GPS safety monitoring systems, these workers can be protected by devices that constantly report on their location and can quickly alert control centers of possible issues.

For example, if the person wearing the device is stationary for longer than a predetermined interval, the control center would be alerted and would immediately try to contact the worker concerned. The worker would also be triggered to respond and give an “OK” message.

In addition, if the lone worker encounters a problem, they can immediately send a distress signal, known as the “man down” message. These lone worker devices can operate safely and securely in remote and extreme conditions, sending signals that give a precise location. Most personal devices also work in conjunction with a vehicle system – which in really remote areas can even use satellite communications to maintain contact with the control center. Typically, the lone worker can be as far as one mile from the base vehicle and still get a message back to HQ.

Emergency communications
In any emergency – whether involving a lone worker, a major highway accident or a natural disaster – communications are a vital part of the rescue and recovery process. In lone worker situations, directing the rescue and recovery team to the right location, guided by GPS and telematics communications, is a vital first step.

In other situations, especially natural disasters, areas can have their basic communications infrastructure destroyed by flood, fire or hurricane activity. In these circumstances, network operators can mobilize emergency telecom infrastructures for rescue workers to use and to restore communications for those local residents and businesses affected by the extreme conditions. In fact, a major wireless network has a cave some 60 feet underground where it stores some of this emergency equipment, ensuring this vital mobile communications infrastructure is well protected from the elements and can be transported to the areas affected.

For businesses using telematics solutions for heavy equipment in these areas, the restoration of normal cellular service in difficult to reach locations would mean they could carry out remote health checks on their equipment. Not only is this much safer, but in many cases it would also enable them to pass useful information to the emergency teams concerning the environment around the equipment, such as temperature, humidity, air quality and pollution.

Safety of people and vehicles
When it comes to the protection and safety of people and equipment, information is vital. Using telematics to know exactly where your assets are – people and equipment – and to also understand their current operational status is a great starting point. Overlaying that information with predicted weather patterns or the Big Data-derived knowledge of equipment or individual behavior provides a further edge in protecting those assets.

This protection can simply mean re-routing a vehicle to avoid trouble, or maybe advising a rest stop for a driver because they have been driving through a heavy rainstorm for, per the data, is now becoming too long without a break. These simple instructions, based on reliable accurate data, can save time, money and lives.

And while rescue and recovery will always be the top priorities for those working in emergency situations – and they will be grateful for the ability of telematics to guide them to the right spot – they will also all recognize that wherever possible, prevention is better than the cure, and telematics can play an increasingly important role in that area, too.

Sotra MariaMaria Sotra leads the global marketing and communications direction for Geotab, one of North America's fastest growing technology companies. During her career, Sotra has worked one-on-one with more than 50 businesses across North America to offer creative marketing solutions.