Reefer delight: How Maersk Line uses IoT on the open seas

2 Nov 2016

Maersk Line ship entering port. Image Maersk Line

Ahead of her keynote at IoT World in Dublin later this November, Maersk Line’s Catja Hjorth Rasmussen talks about how the company uses IoT to keep things cool on the open seas.

If you’ve been to any port at some point in your life, it is more than likely that you’ve seen a Maersk Line shipping container, in one of 343 ports in the 121 countries that it operates in.

With billions of euro worth of goods shipped daily, it is no surprise that the Maersk Group employs over 88,000 people to keep things flowing. Of that number, one person is managing to, quite literally, stay cool: Catja Hjorth Rasmussen.

Managing nearly 300,000 reefers

Rasmussen is head of the company’s Remote Container Management (RCM) system that uses the internet of things (IoT) to keep a track of containers, but specifically refrigerated containers.

While much of the containers shipped around the world carry items like electrical goods and clothing, there are close to 300,000 refrigerated containers – known as ‘reefers’ – that contain food needed to be kept frozen or chilled at all times.

This resulted in quite the logistical challenge for Maersk Line, as it was difficult to tell if reefer containers were working properly and keeping food at the right temperature when a ship was out on the open seas.

For example, rough weather could knock off a reefer’s power supply, therefore preventing food from being refrigerated.

This all changed five years ago, when the company began formulating plans for its RCM technology that would connect each of its reefer containers to IoT.

Challenges facing IoT on the open seas

By collaborating with Ericsson to transmit signals remotely via satellite, all of the reefer’s vital statistics – such as temperature, power supply and location – are sent to a private cloud server provided by AT&T.

Over the past five years, Rasmussen has orchestrated an incredibly challenging roll-out process of these IoT devices in reefers, admitting that it “hasn’t been simple at all”.

“One thing we did [at Maersk] was to identify and develop a device that can work and handle the pressure that our equipment goes through,” Rasmussen said.


Catja Hjorth Rasmussen, head of Maersk Line’s RCM system.

“We can have boxes going from the hottest place in Latin America to the coldest north of Alaska, so we need batteries, hardware and devices that can perform under pressure,” she explained.

The RCM platform consists of three different components including: a GPS unit to track its position at any given time, a 3G SIM card designed to work at high temperatures, and a GSM antenna.

The hardest part, she said in conversation with, was actually integrating an entirely new IT interface with a secure back-end solution.

Playing the long game

Installing these devices on nearly 300,000 reefer containers took close to three years alone.

While the system is now up and running, Rasmussen said that visible benefits will only come with time.

“I would say that it has definitely been worth it after a long journey. [We] are now starting to reap some of the benefits, but when you deal with technology in such a large scale, it takes a long time before the entire organisation is embracing it.”

Not wanting to rest on its laurels, Rasmussen is already looking at what the next steps in IoT technology will be, particularly when it comes to the RCM’s batteries.

Despite the IoT platform being ideally powered directly from a reefer container that receives a power supply, Rasmussen said that the company is constantly on the lookout for batteries that perform perfectly in extreme weather conditions.

Preventing, rather than reacting

Now fully operational since mid-2015, RCM has a dedicated team in Chennai, India that monitors the company’s reefers constantly.

Once a fault has been found, the team can then inform the ship’s crew and begin working to get the reefer back online.

But is Maersk Line using RCM and IoT to their full potential? Rasmussen added that while they can now use the system to react to faults in one of 270,000 containers, the end goal is to use data analytics to catch faults before they happen.

“We would like to get to a point where we get proactive and maybe even use the data to do some analytics to enable us to do preventive maintenance, [which] will lead to better cargo care and a better service to our customers,” she said. “That is really where we want to get to.”

Catja Hjorth Rasmussen will be delivering a keynote on Maersk Line’s reefer containers on 22 November at IoT World Europe in The Convention Centre, Dublin.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic