Mobile workforce automation
The combination of vehicle tracking and real-time mobile data allows an itinerant workforceto function without constant return trips to a central office.
Automatic vehicle location (AVL) systems using the Global Positioning System (GPS) are rapidly becoming a necessity for government agencies and businesses with vehicle fleets. The declining price of GPS equipment, coupled with the development of a variety of wireless communications options, make AVL systems more accessible. To really take advantage of technological advances requires adding mobile data technology to AVL systems to create an efficient mobile workforce fleet.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) serves as the air quality regulation and enforcement agency for an area of 12,000 square miles covering four counties in Southern California. By monitoring and inspecting 31,000 commercial and industrial facilities in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, AQMD inspectors enforce pollution emissions levels to maintain environmentally healthy air-quality standards. The combination of 14 million people, 9 million automobiles and a barrier of mountains leads to the worst smog problem in the United States. AQMD has a team of inspectors that is responsible for visiting sites around the district to ensure compliance with environmental standards and to respond to complaints.
With a jurisdiction of this magnitude, vehicle fleet monitoring and driver communication was a logistical and efficiency nightmare. AQMD came to Radio Satellite Integrators (RSI) for help. The solution was to implement a sophisticated and comprehensive vehicle tracking and wireless mobile data system.
“We have combined several technologies into the transportation portion of the AQMD solution: the Global Positioning System, wireless data technology and a geographic information system (GIS),” explained RSI President Jonathan Michels. “These integrated capabilities have the flexibility to accommodate complex projects like AQMD.”
RSI equipped the AQMD vehicle fleet with an integrated system comprising a V-Track AVL system, the Mobile Navigator, and a suite of custom applications called the Mobile Inspector. Communicating through a wireless data network, the transfer of information between each vehicle and the base station, allows the mobile inspector and central database to work as one cohesive unit. The tracking unit uses GPS data to allow base dispatchers to know the precise location of the fleet in real time as well as to provide in-vehicle data for navigation. The tracking unit also relays other data between vehicles and the base station, such as messages, database queries and email. A “black box” on each vehicle contains a GPS receiver board, a micro-controller and an RF transceiver. In the AQMD system, a BellSouth Wireless Data transceiver is used to communicate all of the mobile data between vehicles and the base station. Dispatchers can ascertain the location of each vehicle on demand, or at a configurable polling rate. Vehicle location accuracy varies, depending on system configuration, but location can be as accurate as a few meters.
“We looked at our communications options, and a wireless data service provider like BellSouth Wireless Data was best suited for this application.” Michels said. “[AQMD’s] jurisdiction is too expansive for conventional two-way radio, and cellular would have been unnecessarily costly.”
Wireless data services such as BellSouth Wireless Data offer coverage throughout most metropolitan areas in the United States. Using its data-only network, BellSouth Wireless Data can optimize its channels and data throughput over immense areas for a much smaller cost than regular cellular service.
The navigation software, running on an in-vehicle laptop, also uses the onboard GPS data and provides the inspector with desired in-vehicle navigation information, such as site locations, addresses, and current location, as shown in Figure 1 on page 54. The inspector works as the interface between the field unit and the central database and also enables applications like wireless Internet-enabled email, an automated daily activity log and real-time SQL queries on the District’s Ingres database. RSI pioneered sophisticated wireless query agents for SQL database access.
Systems can be designed using a variety of communications modes, ranging from two-way radios to commercial satellite networks. The communications infrastructure varies, depending on what is available and cost-effective, given the needs of the client. If a customer has a fleet with an adequate existing radio system, that legacy system can be adapted to send all of the data. This way, the customer does not have to pay for wireless service charges or for the respective transceiver. In the AQMD project, the coverage area of the inspectors is too large for a radio network, and the wireless data charges are negligible in a cost-benefit analysis anticipating increases in productivity, efficiency and inspector safety.
At the base station, vehicle locations are displayed on customized software running on a GIS-equipped mapping and display station PC. This computer is responsible for running the customized GIS, which displays data collected from the field units by the communications controller. This system uses a powerful GIS, ESRI’s ArcView, as the basis for display and analysis, giving the user the capability to perform complex “spatial query” operations that take advantage of the geographic referencing of both the data collected and the base map (see Figure 2 on page 56). Vectorized maps allow the user to analyze space and time components in their entirety. Query capabilities are virtually unlimited and include route conformance analysis, schedule compliance (using actual time and position relative to planned schedule) and route optimization. This additional integration increases the value of the system to the user.
GIS mapping technology enables the user to view, follow, manipulate, log and analyze any variety of real-time spatial vehicle location information. The location data is transferred back to the base station in data packets with unique inspector identification and GPS time tags. All data is compressed in real time using proprietary algorithms to maximize system performance and minimize data transfer costs.
Prior to switching to a wireless system, AQMD’s inspectors were required to return to headquarters (for some, a two-hour drive) just to receive work assignments and to access information. Now, inspectors can work entirely away from the office and can send and receive email, access corporate and customer information databases, receive work assignment dispatches and navigate to destinations, all from their in-vehicle laptops.
This technology is being used now by cutting edge agencies and companies, but soon any outfit with a vehicle fleet will need AVL and mobile data to stay competitive. Versatility will be a checkpoint for implementing an AVL system. Rather than a single “boxed” tracking solution for every application, a more efficient approach is to have a basic system that is customized to fit each customer’s specific needs.
RSI has more than 60 systems in place worldwide, inluding applications for public safety, postal, courier services, military, utilities, armored vehicles, vessel tracking, and regional and long-haul trucking.