In 2012, scientists at the nanomaterials lab at the University of Oxford discovered and patented a way to create a solid-state miniature atomic clock. Atomic clocks are the most accurate time and frequency standards known to mankind. Their accuracy is unparalleled, providing location accuracy to within a foot. They are used for a wide range of technological applications, including international timekeeping, controlling the wave frequency of television broadcasts, and in global navigation satellite systems such as GPS.
LocatorX partnered with the University of Oxford to bring the technology to market for commercial use as a component in the Global Resource Locator. The company secured exclusive rights to the solid-state miniature atomic clock patent, and now has a scaled, patented Global Resource Locator device the technology to enable real-time tracking of any asset – both indoors and outdoors – at a low per-unit cost, without installing expensive beacon systems.
Ultimately as the Internet of Things (IoT) continues to grow, the company says, its Global Resource Locator will seamlessly integrate into any device or product to enable accurate and timely location tracking.
In this HDT interview, LocatorX President and CEO Scott Fletcher describes how the company’s technology will soon supercharge logistics transparency throughout the supply chain for shippers, fleets and consumers.
HDT: This is all new technology, so how would you describe it to a layman?
Fletcher: LocatorX is a technology startup company with a new product that is based on a miniature atomic clock developed at Oxford University, in the United Kingdom, a few years ago. We are basically marrying GPS platform satellite tracking with solid-state nanotechnology to develop a highly accurate tracking system at a minimal price. The device is about the size of your pinky fingernail and can be placed on any physical item you want to track, from a manufacturer all the way through shipment into the hands of a consumer. You can put this device on a tractor-trailer or a tube of toothpaste. It’s that small.
HDT: Why is the atomic clock technology so important for your device?
Fletcher: Atomic clocks are precise down to 1 one-billionth of a second. Most tracking devices use quartz clocks, which are accurate to 1 one-millionth of a second. So using an atomic clock, from earth orbit, we are able to determine an object’s accuracy to within 1 foot. And that capability also gives us the ability to determine the time and distance an object travels to an incredibly accurate degree. So anywhere on the globe that is within range of a cell phone tower, we can calculate the exact longitude and latitude of where something is and how far it has traveled. So an atomic clock, when it calculates a signal from a GPS satellite and is triangulated, provides highly precise data on an object’s pinpoint location, as well as its elevation, the direction, time and distance it has traveled since the last signal.
HDT: But there’s more to your product than just simple location reporting, correct?
Fletcher: Yes. We have a wide range of recording and reporting capabilities as well. We have environmental sensors that can be used to track and verify a cold-chain food shipment, for example. And they are so accurate that we can determine that one side of a pallet of, say avocados, was sitting in sunlight for too long, while the other side of the pallet maintained the correct temperature range. We can customize alerts and alarms for customers and provide unique bar codes allowing them to track an item or shipment at any level they want. We can pinpoint a product recall, for example, down to where a crop was grown, packed, to the distribution center. And it doesn’t matter if we’re taking about a pallet of watermelons or canned soup. This is not a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits all tracking solution.
HDT: The implications for cargo theft deterrence are obvious.
Fletcher: Yes. We can put our tracking device on a single bottle of ketchup, if a customer thinks there’s value in that. Our GPS-based holographic labels are impossible to replicate. And a fleet or a shipper can scan a shipment from a distance and know if the items they’re interested in are on the truck and on schedule to their destination. And the devices are so small, you can have multiple ones in a single shipment – or place the device in the cardboard packaging instead of on the product itself. So it is virtually impossible for thieves to steal a pallet of goods and disable the tracking capabilities.
HDT: How do you optimize battery life on such a small component?
Fletcher: The system uses an energy-harvesting coil, but if it’s not getting a query signal, it goes into hibernation mode. It’s activated by vibrations. So if the chip is on a pair of sneakers and sits in a warehouse for three months, it will be dormant. But if a forklift comes in and lifts the pallet and takes it to another part of the warehouse, the device will wake up and record that move.
HDT: It sounds like you’re just moving into various markets. What are your long-term plans?
Fletcher: We think they’re unlimited. These chips cost pennies to produce. And the capabilities in terms of labels, information and transactions can be measured in the billions. We’re talking about eventually producing 400 million chips a year and in discussions with major corporations which see this as a way of fighting counterfeit products. So we are just getting started. But we have a lot of potential ahead of us.