Proving the Business Case for the Internet of Things

Panasonic tuna fish saviour set to help western cold-chain companies

Steve Rogerson
December 15, 2015
 
Technology that has been keeping tuna fish fresh on Japanese tables is set to transform the cold-chain market in Europe and the USA. The Grid-Eye infra-red sensor from Panasonic was released to markets outside of Japan earlier this year and the company has now brought out an evaluation kit that is being tried by western cold-chain logistics companies.
 
The technology has been available in Japan for about two and a half years but due to the country’s strict export rules it is only now finding customers in Europe and the USA.
 
The result of years of research into infra-red sensing technology, Grid-Eye is a thermopile array sensor that accurately measures temperature over an entire specified area without any contact, whereas conventional thermal sensors only measure temperature at a certain contact point.
 
In Japan, the road journey for tuna fish from the sea to Tokyo takes about six hours. In the past, the temperature of the fish was not monitored but if it is not maintained with one or two degrees, the flavour changes for the worst.
 
“Japan people love fish,” Panasonic product manager Mubeen Abbas told IMC. “If the taste of the tuna changes, it cannot be sold in the market. It reaches the market but people don’t buy it. So they have been transporting by air freight, and that is very costly.”
 
This changed when Japanese logistics company Nittsu & Mars tried out the Grid-Eye sensors, initially on eight lorries. Each lorry has eight sensors distributed round the vehicle. An LCD in the driver’s cabin showed the temperature for all the sensors.
 
“So, for the whole journey, the driver could monitor the temperature,” said Abbas. “This was successful, so they have now expanded it to 40 trucks.”
 
Now the technology is available outside of Japan, it is already attracting interest such as from Minneapolis-based Thermo King, a manufacturer of temperature control systems for lorries, containers, trailers and railways carriages. Panasonic is also in talks with Swedish cold-chain company Envirotainer.
 
“Envirotainer helps deliver goods such as vegetables and frozen food that have to be at a controlled temperature,” said Abbas. “We have given them the evaluation kit and they are testing it.”
 
The evaluation kit is designed to help with fast prototyping the sensors for IoT and other applications. It integrates a nanopower Bluetooth Smart module and an Atmel ATSam-D21G18A microcontroller. The Pan 1740 integrated Bluetooth module in the evaluation kit draws 4.9mA in transmit or receive operating modes, which means it can be powered by coin cell batteries.
 
Grid-Eye can detect changes in temperature within a 60 degree viewing angle. Not only can it detect a person’s direction of movement, but it can also detect stationary people or objects and multiple people moving in different directions. At close proximity, it is even capable of detecting hand movements.
 
As it is an infra-red sensor, detection of people is measured almost independently of ambient light conditions, and its use does not intrude on personal privacy, unlike cameras. The ambient temperature of an area can also be measured.
 
Based on Panasonic’s MEMs technology, it combines a built-in thermistor, an ASIC and a silicon lens in an integrated SMD package. It has 64 thermopile elements in an 8x8 grid format that detect radiation changes in the infra-red range. The device performs selected calculations that allows mapping of specific temperature data as a thermal image.
 
The arrays produce a result to within ±2.5ËšC. Human detection distance is 5m. Object temperature range is 0 to +80ËšC with high gain amplification factor and -20 to +100ËšC with low gain. The measurement values can be read out via a PC interface in one or ten frames per second. The interrupt signal output delivers a quick response to time-critical events.
 
Measuring 11.6 by 4.3 by 8.0mm, the arrays have an operating voltage of 3.3 or 5.5V and a typical current consumption of 4.5mA in normal mode, 0.8mA in stand-by mode and 0.2mA in sleep mode.
 
Grid-Eye opens the door to other applications, ranging from energy savings in the lighting industry (commercial, public and residential), domestic appliances (such as air conditioners and microwave ovens), safety and security systems (lifts, automatic doors, elevators and kiosks), and the medical industry (patient detection and positioning). Further examples include hot-spot detection and human detection both in the interior and exterior of vehicles, temperature measurement for industrial process management and control and contact-less temperature measurement in industry.
 
“On the medical side, we are also looking at it for insulin transportation,” said Abbas. “This has to be kept at a specific temperature and we are looking for companies that are doing this.”
 
The company has also introduced the Grid-Eye Unit, which combines four sensors for HVAC type applications. With the sensor mounted on the ceiling, it can detect how many people are in a room and adjust the temperature and lighting accordingly.
 
“In Japan, we have companies that are doing this,” said Abbas. “This has been done in office buildings and in a test at a university we found it could save 27 per cent in energy costs. A big company in Europe is testing the sensor integrated into a building management system. There are other companies looking at it for lighting measurement. Bosch, for example, is looking at it for building and lighting management.”