What is the Technology Behind Tracking Packages?

When you order something online, you expect to get updates on its location and delivery. But what is the technology behind this automatic tracking?

Tracking packages has become the norm in today’s e-commerce based world. When you order something online, you usually expect to get updates on its location and delivery, and be able to check its progress. But what is the technology behind this automatic tracking?

There is actually not one single technology but the convergence of several technology systems used to track packages. The primary systems used today are Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Global Positioning System (GPS), and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). Any tracking or location-based service will use one or a combination of these technologies. Here is how they work to track packages:

Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

GIS is a system of gathering, managing and analysing data into a framework that reveals deeper insight into the data, patterns and relationships. It is used by companies in a variety of fields to map out spatial locations and organize layers of information.

For packaging tracking, GIS is used to understand data input and create analysis and modeling for more efficient package delivery. Many global shipping services use this technology to optimize their delivery fleet and improve delivery timing. At Fedex, for example, GIS is used to create spatial data to make crucial decisions on routing and scheduling worldwide. 

While the GIS technology is used primarily behind the scenes in package tracking for route optimization and shipping logistics, it can also be used to generate estimates and real-time information on shipment locations and route progress.

Global Positioning System (GPS)

With Google Maps and other navigation systems, we have all become reliant on GPS systems. What we call a GPS is actually a GPS receiver that is communicating with the global satellite network to update real time positioning. 

Package tracking via GPS works in much the same way: the truck, boat, or aircraft is connected to a global system and tracked via a network of 27 satellites orbiting earth.  

GPS systems are most often used in shipping logistics for transport vehicles. In this case, the individual packages are scanned before being loaded onto the vehicle and then real time tracking is provided for the vehicle via GPS. If you’ve received a message that the driver is within 20 minutes of your home for a package delivery, that is GPS tracking in action. 

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)

RFID codes are like sophisticated barcodes that require no batteries but offer a unique “fingerprint” to each item. There are a few key differences that make RFID a substantial improvement over barcodes.

With traditional barcodes, generally all of the same items will have the same barcode, but with the RFID codes, each item or shipment will have its own unique code.  While barcodes can only be scanned or “read”, data stored on RFID labels can be read, written, and locked. 

RFID tags can be attached to parcels or vehicles for up-to-date tracking information. They can not only be scanned like a barcode, but actually can send out their own tracking information. 

RFID tags are widely regarded as the tracking technology of the future because of the necessity to have current information on inventory location and the most reliable tracking data. With RFID tracking, it’s immediately evident if a shipment misses a tracking checkpoint and there is no possibility for human error. 

In addition, RFID tags are serialized, making it possible to match the serial number on the packaging with the one reported on the shipping bill. This allows companies to monitor any tampering with shipments or changes in serial codes.  Any differences indicate that the product quality may be compromised. RFID technology makes it easier for companies to track large shipments and ensure that the product has not been tampered with or diluted with counterfeit products. 

Right now, RFID technology is mostly used for small areas or within companies or hospitals to track the location of inventory, but this is expected to expand to global shipping in the coming years. 

Real-Time Tracking vs. Checkpoints

RFID technology and GPS technology both allow for real-time tracking, but the end user still usually sees information at specific checkpoints. If you have tracked a package recently, you might have seen that it went through New York, Memphis, and Denver before being “out for delivery”. 

These checkpoints provide the end user with a glimpse of the shipment’s progress, without providing exact GPS or RFID tracking details that are available to shipping companies. Checkpoint information provides enough essential data to estimate delivery time and date for the end customer, while also providing security for the shipment process. 

Tracking of the Future

While RFID technology is currently considering the package-tracking technology of the future, further developments in microchips and real time tracking devices will provide customers with increasingly accurate and secure tracking information to fuel our globally connected economy.  


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