Iván Arakistain Wins the Top Connect for Good Prize for an Emissions-Slashing Nordic nRF9160 Gadget

Tracking perishable goods with live cellular reporting and on-device machine learning smarts, this clever device aims to slash emissions.

A project designed to underpin a dramatic reduction in the environmental impact of shipping perishable goods, created by TECNALIA researcher Iván Arakistain, has been named the winner of the Connect for Good Low-Power Sustainability Challenge for its potential to slash the cost of transportation by 10 per cent while simultaneously shaving 64 tonnes of carbon dioxide from each truck's emissions per year — and it achieves it all through smart cellular connectivity and low-power on-device machine learning.

The transportation of perishable goods, which need to kept below a certain temperature during transit to ensure they'll be safe to use when they reach their destination, drives considerable emissions. A 2023 study by researchers at the School of Economics and Management, Southeast University, found that the environmental impact of transportation networks with field refrigeration capabilities could be more than double that of networks for non-perishable goods. The question, though: how to reduce that impact without risking consumer safety on goods like food and medicines?

Arakistain, working with colleagues in the embedded AI group of Spain's TECNALIA center for applied research and technological development, came up with a solution for doing exactly that — by better monitoring the goods in transit, proving that goods shipped in passively insulated containers haven't exceeded safe temperatures during their journey, using a Nordic nRF9160 Development Kit connected to a raft of sensors designed to provide definitive proof that the "cold chain" hasn't been broken.

To do that, Arakistain's device does more than simply monitor temperatures: its sensor package includes an accelerometer, magnetometer, light sensor, and an "electronic nose" designed to monitor air quality alongside temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure, all of which is processed using tinyML on-device machine learning technology. Everything is powered by a 6,000mAh battery charged from solar panels — making full use of the low energy draw and power-saving capabilities of the Nordic nRF9160 system-in-package (SiP) at the heart of the board.

Data gathered by the device aren't just logged locally for verification at the end of the journey, either, and the system is designed to be resistant to tampering. Data are streamed live using the nRF9160's LTE-M or NB-IoT cellular connectivity, giving logistics managers immediate insight into the status of the shipment — and, if a break in the cold chain is detected, insight into exactly when and where it happened. These data are stored in a blockchain-based back-end service, providing a guarantee that they have not been modified since transmission.

All put together, Arakistain's creation provides cast-iron guarantees on the sanctity of the cold chain and the safe handling of the goods in transit — improving safety while allowing companies to switch from energy-hungry refrigerated transportation and storage to passive insulated alternatives without the risk of delivering unsafe cargo. This is behind Arakistain's claims of being able to slash the cost-per-mile by 10 per cent and slice 64 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions off each truck on the roads — every single year.

"Using refrigerated trucks not only uses more energy, it allows logistics companies to potentially be more wasteful in the routes that are used," says Nordic's Claire Steed of the winning project's potential impact. "The project has been well thought out and researched and I believe TECNALIA will be able to get this from an excellent proof-of-concept to a real world product that will have mass appeal to both haulage companies and supermarkets that are looking for ways to reduce their emissions to contribute towards a greener future."

The project was awarded first prize in the Connect for Good Challenge for its direct impact on the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals, for which its creator receives a $20,000 cash prize and a year's subscription to Nordic's nRF Cloud Services for up to 500 devices, Soracom cellular connectivity, and a partnership with competition sponsors to help bring the technology to market.

More information on the Connect for Good Challenge is available on the Nordic website; technical details on the nRF9160 DK are available on its product page.

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