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Railfan Technology > Tracking a rail shipment with an iPhone


Date: 06/13/22 14:29
Tracking a rail shipment with an iPhone
Author: march_hare

One of the raw materials for my rubber rocks business is liquid latex rubber, which I buy from a special effects outfit in Southern California. It comes in 5 gallon buckets, 40 pounds or so, packed in a cardboard box. It's shipped UPS to us here on the east coast, and I've always suspected that it comes across country on a BNSF intermodal, connecting to CSX to either Syracuse or Newark. 

I would love to track one of those shipments, maybe even go out and chase the train that it's on, just for giggles. 

Could I just pack an old cell phone in one of the boxes, hook it up to an external battery, and track it using the "find my iPhone" app?  Or maybe have it take widely spaced time lapse photos of the inside of its box (obviously, dark and useless photos) just to have geolocation at certain times?

Any ideas?  I'm pretty sure the iPhone signal will penetrate a metal UPS trailer, not so sure if it ends up in a domestic container with presumably thicker walls. 



Date: 06/13/22 14:36
Re: Tracking a rail shipment with an iPhone
Author: engineerinvirginia

It might work in theory...but an IPhone might die if its battery isn't terrific and that not to mention less than moderate temperatures will shut it down....but have you heard of Apple air tags? Designed to travel and once you link one to your ICloud account you can track it! Just chuck one in any box that you know is coming back to you.



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 06/13/22 14:39 by engineerinvirginia.



Date: 06/13/22 15:02
Re: Tracking a rail shipment with an iPhone
Author: jst3751

engineerinvirginia Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> it down....but have you heard of Apple air tags?
> Designed to travel and once you link one to your
> ICloud account you can track it! Just chuck one in
> any box that you know is coming back to you.

Apple air tags communicate via Bluetooth to other Apple devices configured to allow it to read and report. So, highly unlikely to work in a shipping container on an intermodal train. 



Date: 06/13/22 15:11
Re: Tracking a rail shipment with an iPhone
Author: march_hare

I'd been thinking I would plug it in to a second battery, should last the 6 days or so to make the trip. Maybe put it into power save mode to help. 



Date: 06/13/22 15:27
Re: Tracking a rail shipment with an iPhone
Author: engineerinvirginia

march_hare Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> I'd been thinking I would plug it in to a second
> battery, should last the 6 days or so to make the
> trip. Maybe put it into power save mode to help. 

hmmm not sure what capabilities are retained in power save mode....try it once and see what you can do....but with two batteries and the phone not being used it could make the trip, very possibly.



Date: 06/14/22 04:45
Re: Tracking a rail shipment with an iPhone
Author: JUTower

The iPhone relies on GPS radio signals for location, which won't work very well inside a sealed metal box.  But I agree that it would be possible to hook it up to an external battery and have it last long enough (provided you remove any data-hogging apps, etc) to maximize battery life.



Date: 06/14/22 09:44
Re: Tracking a rail shipment with an iPhone
Author: BRAtkinson

I don't know about Apple iPhones, but my Android phone has a bunch of 'builtin' apps that are useless to me.  Unfortunately, I can only disable a handful of them.  Others show up as 'running' in a message, do I manually turn them off after each reboot.  Even with as little background app running as possible, my Android can go about 3 days before the battery is below 10%.

As for adding a secondary battery, the engineering issues of voltage and amps as well as how to hook it to the contacts inside the phone could be problematic.  I wouldn't be surprised if iPhones 'check' the electronics inside the battery to verify it's fully compatible before it starts up.



Date: 06/14/22 11:01
Re: Tracking a rail shipment with an iPhone
Author: walstib

I agree that using an iPhone isn’t ideal.

Have you considered a GPS tracker?

There are many on the market, but you might check out one made by Pebblebee. It’s $99, plus $4 a month for service.

The metal shipping container might cause problems, but the battery life should be better than an iPhone. And it’s less expensive to replace if something goes wrong and it gets lost with a dead battery.

Posted from iPhone



Date: 06/14/22 17:08
Re: Tracking a rail shipment with an iPhone
Author: march_hare

BRAtkinson Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> I don't know about Apple iPhones, but my Android
> phone has a bunch of 'builtin' apps that are
> useless to me.  Unfortunately, I can only disable
> a handful of them.  Others show up as 'running'
> in a message, do I manually turn them off after
> each reboot.  Even with as little background app
> running as possible, my Android can go about 3
> days before the battery is below 10%.
>
> As for adding a secondary battery, the engineering
> issues of voltage and amps as well as how to hook
> it to the contacts inside the phone could be
> problematic.  I wouldn't be surprised if iPhones
> 'check' the electronics inside the battery to
> verify it's fully compatible before it starts up.

I already have the backup battery. Works like a charm, but I've never tried to use it over 6-7 days. 



Date: 06/14/22 20:51
Re: Tracking a rail shipment with an iPhone
Author: wa4umr

The biggest problem I see is that a steel container is actually a Farraday shield.  A Faraday shield is basically a radio shield.  The GPS might have trouble receiving a signal inside of that box and the cellphone might have trouble getting out of the box.  If either one has a problem, the entire project is going to rail.  There is an app that I have on my I-phone called "Find my phone."  I have authorized my family members to track me.  They can go to the app and find me or I can do the same to find them.  You go to the My Contacts of the phone you want to track and find your name and go to the bottom and click the "Share my location."  

John



Date: 06/15/22 10:49
Re: Tracking a rail shipment with an iPhone
Author: upsu

BNSF interchanges with CSX in Chicago.  UPS uses both CSX and NS into the NY Metro area. CSX goes to North Bergen, former NYC yard and NS goes to Croxton, former Erie.



Date: 06/15/22 14:31
Re: Tracking a rail shipment with an iPhone
Author: RyanWilkerson

I did something similar for a POD container from California to Georgia last month.
I used an AirTag in a box with an older iphone 6s connected to a USB battery that gives continuous power to the phone. It lasted for 8 days all the way there! I set the screen to the lowest brightness level, turned off vibrations and sounds and the Wifi OFF. The low power mode is an interesting idea but I didn't have time to test it.

I could see the iphone using "Find my phone" and the Airtag too. Pretty cool seeing it rolling down the highway in realtime!

Ryan Wilkerson
Fair Oaks, CA
ShastaRails



Date: 06/15/22 15:47
Re: Tracking a rail shipment with an iPhone
Author: DevalDragon

march_hare Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> One of the raw materials for my rubber rocks
> business is liquid latex rubber, which I buy from
> a special effects outfit in Southern California.
> It comes in 5 gallon buckets, 40 pounds or so,
> packed in a cardboard box. It's shipped UPS to us
> here on the east coast, and I've always suspected
> that it comes across country on a BNSF intermodal,
> connecting to CSX to either Syracuse or Newark. 

You can't just watch the UPS tracking periodically and figure it out from all the places UPS has shown it's been?



Date: 06/15/22 18:07
Re: Tracking a rail shipment with an iPhone
Author: march_hare

I was hoping for better detail than UPS would provide. Especially if I get goofy and decide to follow the train it’s on. 



Date: 06/19/22 16:18
Re: Tracking a rail shipment with an iPhone
Author: ironmtn

march_hare Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> I was hoping for better detail than UPS would
> provide. Especially if I get goofy and decide to
> follow the train it’s on. 

As an Android user, I can't comment on the iPhone and Apple features being discussed. But you can do pretty good at the train level (with a little luck), although not to the individual container level, just with UPS tracking.

Some months ago I had an important UPS shipment that I knew originated in the Los Angeles area, and with its destination in the Midwest (western Michigan) would likely go rail intermodal to Chicago. And indeed the first post-origination scan on UPS was at a point which was almost certainly not a highway point, and almost certainly a rail point on BNSF (Hesperia, CA, as I recall). That was probably a download to UPS from a BNSF wayside scanner, and which they then incorporated into the package transit record. With some help from friends and some folks here on TO, I established the likely train symbol (Z-SBDCHI, as I recall). And working from the scan time at that first waypoint, some pieces of information on a few typical waypoint times for that symbol (for example, usual time at Belen, NM), and some plain old calculation, I was able to establish a reasonably likely timetable. I then tuned into the Virtual Railfan and Railstream cameras at Barstow CA (not working that day), Flagstaff AZ, Belen NM, Kansas City, La Plata, MO, Fort Madison, IA and Coal City, IL to watch the train pass. And I tracked it on ATCS Monitor much of the way, too, keeping a little record sheet with an OS time for each principal location, particularly those with cameras.

And working backward from a confirmed arrival time in Chicago that I got from a friend, I was able to confirm that I had correctly identified the train that I watched and OS'ed from La Plata into Chicago. I probably had it correct at earlier points too.  If I had wanted to go out and photograph the train, I could have done so, and likely been correct. In fact, about the only thing that kept me from doing so was the fact that it would arrive into Chicago in the wee hours under cover of darkness. I might have done the three hours' drive from my home to Chicago if the arrival had been in daylight, and combined some other railfanning with it.

It was actually a very interesting and enjoyable process. And I learned a few things about how BNSF handled and routed traffic at the time (quite well, I hasten to add) that I hadn't noticed previously. So, however you do it, if you do, good luck. And enjoy.

MC



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