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FedEx bites into Bluetooth

FedEx is convinced the low-power, low-cost wireless alternative has countless uses, and will continue to help the company track packages around the world.
/ Source: Forbes

In the tenth century, King Harald Blatand -- known as "Bluetooth" for his passion for smile-staining blueberries, legend has it -- united Denmark and Norway under one rule. Over a millennium later, a technology that bears his name hopes to unite computer hardware, providing a wireless alternative to cords and cables.

Bluetooth wireless isn't a new technology. Created in 1994 by LM Ericcson, the protocol has been aggressively marketed and perpetually named one of the tech world's next big things. But now devices that use the technology are finally flooding the market, with chips from manufacturers including Intel and Motorola showing up in everything from Microsoft's computer keyboards to Nokia's cell phones, and a few smart businesses are already using Bluetooth to increase efficiency and promote a safe workplace.

Delivery giant FedEx pioneered the use of the technology several years ago, "We started looking at Bluetooth when there were really very few if any manufacturers in the U.S. that manufactured Bluetooth chipsets and radios," says Ken Pasley, director of wireless systems development for FedEx Services. "We thought that it would be an excellent opportunity to eliminate cables."

Cable replacement may sound like an unsexy application. But in hubs where FedEx does package sorting, a million packages can fly through in about four hours. Packages speed about on conveyor belts, and any tracking device with a dangling cable could get fouled up in the machinery, causing delays or even injury to employees. "Anytime we can eliminate a cable it helps with safety and flexibility," says Pasley. FedEx equips package sorters with scanners built into a ring on their finger, which communicate wirelessly with a computer on their waist, itself in contact with a central computer, keeping tracking information up-to-the-minute accurate.

But it's on the road where Bluetooth is really beginning to shine. FedEx couriers in select markets now carry handheld computers and scanners called "PowerPads", which allow them to enter information about a package into the company's system as soon as it's picked up or dropped off. If a package needs a shipping label, the computer orders one via Bluetooth from a portable printer. The Bluetooth connection saves the courier only a few seconds, but each handling hundreds of packages a day, that adds up. "It really adds to the productivity of the courier as he goes through his rounds," says Pasley. FedEx has invested a total of about $150 million in the PowerPad project, a significant chunk of its annual IT spend of slightly more than $1 billion.

Bluetooth also helps keep the driver safe on his route--and keep the company out of trouble. Couriers are barred by law from using their computers while driving, and FedEx is required to blank the screen whenever a delivery van is in motion. A new Bluetooth device installed inside the vehicle can sense forward motion, and send a signal that disables the PowerPad's screen. The device remains on, so if the driver receives a new dispatch, it will beep and he can pull over and read the message.

In the future, Pasley would like to outfit couriers with a Bluetooth-connected headpiece, so even when the computer is off, they can be alerted to new pickups audibly, perhaps with an automated voice issuing instructions. Paired with voice recognition software, the driver could even ask the system for directions or more details.

Bluetooth is also useful in synchronizing data. FedEx generally uses a GPRS cellular modem to upload data from a courier's handheld computer to the company's servers, allowing it to keep up-to-the-minute tracking information. But in some areas of the United States, data-capable cellular networks aren't available, so FedEx has to use its own private networks. Drivers scan package information as usual, but when they get back to the van, the handheld automatically connects to a radio antenna via Bluetooth, and the information is updated.

Bluetooth's strengths come from its low profile. The hardware is cheap and small, so a radio can fit into a ring-size device. It uses much less power than Wi-Fi or other wireless protocols, so hardware is more versatile. And Bluetooth radios are cheap--on their way down to $5 a module, according to Pasley--so a business won't take a huge hit in the wallet if it installs the devices.

But those strengths can also be weaknesses. Bluetooth transmits data far more slowly than Wi-Fi, about 720 kilobits per second versus 11 megabits per second. Its signal broadcast range is similarly handicapped, generally maxing out at 30 feet. Gartner Dataquest analyst Todd Hanson says Bluetooth may have limited applications for businesses, and that it isn't likely to replace Wi-Fi for use in local area networks.

"Bluetooth is first and foremost a personal area networking technology, and the devices it can show up in are kind of limited," Hanson says. But cord-replacement applications like the wireless headsets used for consumer cell phones are likely to be very useful for business users such as call-center operators, sales people, or real estate agents on the road, he says. "It's great for all those people who continually have to take a call, or else they'll lose business."

Meanwhile, FedEx is convinced the low-power, low-cost wireless alternative has countless uses, and will continue to help the company track packages around the world. "It's just beginning to metamorphose, and we're beginning to see where the technology can reach," says Pasley. "It's going to be much easier in the future to track assets. It's really going to change the way we work and track in logistics."