Tracking troubled truckers with GEOTrac

In remote areas like the Canadian North, a company’s communications system could spell the difference between huge capital outlay and cost savings, and sometimes, even life and death.

That’s top of mind for Calgary-based transportation firm Swanberg Bros. Trucking Ltd. when it set out on a mission three years ago to develop a new system that can efficiently handle all communications for the firm’s over 200 fleet of trucks regularly traversing the isolated roads of the Canadian North.

Swanberg relocates and erects drilling rigs for the oil and gas industry, and provides other related services such as camp and construction facilities. Its truckers rely heavily on communications, especially during extreme weather conditions highly characteristic of the northern territory.

Swanberg wanted to replace the rented satellite phones field workers were using, which were proving too costly and insufficient, said general manager Gene Gauthier. None of the regular cellular phone services would suffice as well, because most areas where the company operates are outside cellular network coverage.

“We had four or five rented satellite phones, as there were hardly any available,” said Gauthier. “We would send out ten trucks with only one satellite phone.” Truck drivers would then communicate with one another using VHF radio.

The satellite phone link was often “hit-and-miss, cumbersome, hard to manage and very, very expensive,” he said. “We actually function with very poor [satellite] coverage.”

Swanberg’s quest to resolve these issues led to another Calgary firm, GEOTrac International Inc., which develops satellite-based communication systems using a network of low-earth orbit satellites and global positioning system (GPS) satellites.

GEOTrac works with about 40 low-earth orbit satellites situated around 800 kilometres above the earth, circumnavigating it every 100 minutes at a speed of 27,000 kilometres an hour, said Kevin MacDonald, GEOTrac vice-president for marketing communications.

In addition, the communications firm uses eight GPS satellites operated by the U.S. Military. GEOTrac is also part of the advisory committee of the U.S. Project Construct Office, based in Washington, D.C, responsible for re-building Iraq.

“That’s the great thing about having a global satellite network, whether it’s the Beaufort Sea in the Canadian North or northern Iraq, our service is going where it needs to be,” he said.

Swanberg worked with GEOTrac in developing a system that included tracking and monitoring of dispatched trucks. A year-and-a-half later, 220 of Swanberg’s vehicles were equipped with satellite communication systems, providing cost-efficiency for the company and a greater level of security for its field workers.

According to MacDonald the average monthly airtime cost of rented satellite phones is around $15,000.

The cost of installing the GEOTrac satellite system for Swanberg’s fleet of trucks was close to $3,000 per vehicle. In addition, the company is charged a fixed monthly airtime fee.

“It helps the company manage its messaging cost. It is still very reliable and the communications are getting to and back, but it doesn’t necessarily rely on very expensive, high-bandwidth satellite phones,” said MacDonald.

A major drawback for renting satellite phones was the insufficient supply of such equipment relative to the number of trucks that Swanberg usually dispatches at any given time, said Gauthier. “If we have 100 trucks going north on the rig, we can’t rent 100 phones. So, it’s the lack of sources and the high cost of ringing up a satellite phone.”

Each of Swanberg’s trucks is equipped with a modem that connects to a screen through regular Internet cable. The system is wired into the truck’s charging system for power source and to a small antenna for transmission, said Gauthier.

Swanberg implemented the project in three phases.

The first part involved the tracking and monitoring system, which enables a dispatcher to monitor the activities of the truck such as speed and location, in real-time.

“We do a lot of ice-road traveling, crossing lakes and rivers, and speed is critical. If you drive too fast on an icy road, you wreck the road and you could lose your life instantly. (Monitoring tool) is something that was critical for us to have in areas we work in,” said Gauthier.

The second phase of the implementation was the messaging system – just recently completed – between truck drivers and the dispatcher. The system comes with a single-touch screen for ease of use, and includes a 911 button for distress calls. The GPS tracking system enables the dispatcher to locate the caller and send the necessary help right away.

Coming soon will be the third phase of the project, which would install a data link cable to the truck engine. A driver experiencing engine problems could then call a dispatcher to remotely diagnose the problem and send appropriate help or take the necessary remedial action, said Gauthier. This phase is expected to be operational in a year’s time.

Swanberg wasn’t the only one that went through system improvement. GEOTrac has upgraded its network servers from Intel Pentium 4 single-core processors to the highly available IBM Blade Servers powered by Intel Xeon dual-core technology.

The upgrade increased GEOTrac’s processing speed by almost 300 per cent, enabling the company to more efficiently handle all data and communications to and from its point servers, according to Doug Cooper, country manager, Toronto-based Intel Canada Ltd.,

GEOTrac can now face the challenges of growing customer demand, “quickly and efficiently,” said Cooper, explaining the huge difference between GEOTrac’s previous processors and the dual-core technology it has recently implemented.

“The previous system was very much an organic process of growth…that (created) unwieldy footprints that aren’t all the same. As a result, they are difficult to manage and operate,” said Cooper. “Blade servers are much more effective for them to scale, based on customer demand.”

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