How IoT Sensors are Helping Move COVID-19 Vaccines

13-01-2021 | By Robin Mitchell

Now that multiple COVID-19 vaccines are being approved for use worldwide, safe transportation of the vaccine couldn’t be any more important. How are IoT sensors important for vaccines, disposable IoT sensors, and how could they help improve transportation in the future?

How IoT Helps to Transport COVID Vaccines

The arrival of the COVID vaccine from various companies has been greeted with applause and cheers; the world can finally start to fight against COVID instead of hiding from it. Pharmaceuticals are arguably one of the hardest products to move due to strict environmental conditions. It is not uncommon to see certain medicines require temperatures of -20°C, and temperature fluctuations of a few degrees can damage such products.

It cannot go understated for something like COVID vaccines how important it is for the vaccine to be delivered properly. The Pfizer BioNTech vaccine requires a temperature of -70°C when in transit (dry ice is used to keep the vaccine cool), and maintaining such a temperature can be tricky. Therefore, the transportation of such an important vaccine requires constant monitoring.

IoT devices are ideal for use with the transportation of such products for a whole host of reasons. The IoT devices can monitor and log the temperature, which ensures that products are kept at a specific temperature and can also detect fluctuations. Furthermore, the use of an internet connection allows for remote monitoring, and thus shipments can be lived tracked. If tied with alert systems, IoT devices can provide pre-emptive actions by logistic workers to ensure the transported product's integrity. 

The Challenges of IoT Devices When in Transit

Using IoT devices to track and monitor shipments has some major advantages, but it also comes with several downsides; power, connection, and cost.

IoT devices embedded into packages and shipments require power, but the nature of packages is mobile. Therefore, any power used by the IoT device needs to be portable (i.e. a battery), making power conservation a critical factor. Since IoT devices often utilise wireless connections, and wireless connections are extremely power demanding, data transmission would be severely limited.

The need for an internet connection to allow remote monitoring is another problem faced with devices on the move. While goods shipped on land can take advantage of mobile networks, those at sea or in the air may have little to no connection at all. The mode of transport may have its own internet connection, but this connection may not be shared with any devices in transit. Therefore, devices on the go are often in the dark. 

The cost of electronics continues to fall, and the capabilities of even the most basic IoT devices dwarfs computers from a decade previously. However, when shipping millions of products, attaching IoT devices to each product still adds up to a very high cost. 

What modern solutions exist for IoT asset tracking?

When considering the three challenges (power, connection, and cost), several modern solutions could be deployed today to create IoT devices with asset tracking in mind.

Regarding power, the best solution for designers is to utilise low-energy cores (such as ARM nanowatt) and cycle their devices. Thus, instead of constantly running, IoT devices spend most of their time asleep, wake up to take readings, connect to a remote network, and then sleep again. Furthermore, energy harvesters could be used to charge IoT devices during sleep modes, and this energy could be thermal, solar, or vibration. 

Connecting IoT devices to networks in remote locations is a challenge as there needs to be an accessible wireless network with internet connectivity. Of all options currently existing, satellite internet (such as StarLink), provides the best option. However, the need for a high-gain antenna would mean that transportation would need to host a local network (similar to free Wi-Fi often found on buses).

Cost is one of the hardest challenges to solve, but the gradual development of extremely low-cost disposable electronics could be the answer. NFC chips are already widely used in the disposable electronics industry whereby they can be stuck to clothing or other packages and provide basic metadata. However, the real challenge would be to provide power to such devices using energy harvesting techniques demonstrated with the Wiliot. Such devices could allow individual packages to be tracked as opposed to individual crates, thus enabling individual products to be tracked.

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By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.