Smart Barrels

Melanie Martella 

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In the talk about combining sensing and RFID, we've seen their proposed use on cargo containers, on food and pharmaceutical shipments, and other fragile or highly temperature-sensitive goods. A new project in the European Union aims to apply this technology to barrels of chemicals.

Idiot-Proofing Safety
Funded by Information Society Technologies, the project is called the Collaborative Business Items (CoBIs) and is an attempt to shift resources from back-end systems to the products involved. The system, which combines sensors, wireless communication, and computing components, will be tested at a BP plant in Hull, U.K.

The first phase involves placing wireless sensor nodes on barrels of chemicals and using them to monitor compliance with safety regulations for the storage of hazardous materials.

Heck, Yeah!
I have to say that I love this idea, for several reasons. It provides an automated way to signal whether barrels should be stored in a particular location (avoiding mixing volatiles with lots of strong oxidizers, for instance), if there's a leak (heck, this use alone makes it worthwhile), and whether a particular warehouse is at its storage limit. It's a way to continuously monitor the environmental conditions experienced by the barrels. Using a sensor network provides a picture of conditions that isn't available otherwise.

In the case of an accident, having an up-to-date record of exactly what chemicals are on site and where is really, really important both to keep first responders safe and to give them an idea of what they're dealing with. Finally, if the chemical contents of the barrel have a definite shelf-life, this may be a more reliable way of keeping track and steering clear of chemicals that have lost their oomph. You don't want to end up with a dud active ingredient, for instance.

What's Next?
While none of these automated systems can fully replace educating the people who are moving these chemicals around, they have the potential to act as a powerful safety net.  Remember this fire?  Accidents happen. Smart systems can help make them a rarer occurrence.

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