Arduino Technology
Should the postal service turn in to one giant Arduino project?

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What can the postal service to change their business, a giant sensor network? – The Postman Always Pings Twice @ NYTimes.com

THE Postal Service recently announced it had lost $8.5 billion in the last year, despite cutting more than 100,000 jobs. Without new revenue and other changes to get it back on a firm financial footing, it said, it could face insolvency by the end of 2011.

Fortunately, the service has a unique asset that could allow it to make money by collecting valuable data that would contribute to the country’s safety and economic health: its far-reaching network of trucks.

The service’s thousands of delivery vehicles have only one purpose now: to transport mail. But what if they were fitted with sensors to collect and transmit information about weather or air pollutants? The trucks would go from being bulky tools of industrial-age communication to being on the cutting edge of 21st-century information-gathering and forecasting.

The key elements for the project already exist, including tiny, inexpensive G.P.S. receivers and radio uplinks, features found in today’s smart phones. The sensors would operate without distracting the drivers from their primary responsibilities. The service could also minimize startup costs by teaming up with a company to develop, install and operate the equipment. One company under contract with the National Weather Service is already installing environmental sensors on long-haul commercial buses to enhance weather forecasting.

The data gathered by these truck-mounted sensors would establish a baseline map of ordinary conditions, making it significantly easier to spot a problem or anomaly. Such a system could aid in homeland security by rapidly detecting chemical agents, radiological materials and, eventually, biological attacks; it could also collect detailed data to improve weather forecasts. And it could assess road quality, catalog potholes and provide early warning of unsafe road conditions like black ice.

Mailduino Xbee.

10 thoughts on “Should the postal service turn in to one giant Arduino project?

  1. First, about the $8.5 billion loss last year. This is a gross misuse of the data, for a real look at USPS finances,and how the USPS could be completely solvent, look here: http://www.apwu.org/news/burrus/2010/update17-2010-101008.htm
    Note that this data comes from the USPS own Office of the Inspector General. Yet, this data is being ignored in an effort to cut employees pay, and continue to offer direct mailers discounts that are more than the cost savings realized from presorting and barcoding mail.

    Why is this important? Because as makers we depend on the USPS to ship the physical goods we make. The continual pressure to lower workers pay and ruin the USPS finances by giveaways to the direct mail industry only hurts the USPS. That in turn hurts the consumers who wish to use the USPS to send and receive goods.

    But, this is a great idea. Especially since the USPS has recently been giving USPS owned delivery vehicles to rural route mail carriers too, which only expands the area for which data could be collected. I think that the data for air pollution, ozone data, pollen counts, co2 levels, weather data is great. ( Forrest Mims would love this ). It should be collected separately from the data collected for use by the USPS, so that intermingling of proprietary data and data for sale doesn’t occur.

  2. “Such a system could aid in homeland security by rapidly detecting chemical agents, radiological materials and, eventually, biological attacks”
    very doubtful that a terrorist would organise a biological attack when the mail is being delivered. Even if they didn’t know about the trucks sensors, the robustness of the system is flawed

    “A system like this could also detect gaps in cell-tower coverage, weak radio and television signals and sources of radio frequency interference. This data could help provide uninterrupted communication services and promote more efficient use of the broadcast spectrum.”
    Why do we need this data every day? People who have no reception are probably aware of it, and have sorted it out or complained one way or another. Nobody is sitting at home unable to use their mobile, patiently waiting for a postal truck to help them out.

    “True, other types of vehicles, like taxis or buses, could also carry sensors. But such vehicles typically don’t follow as many regular routes. Nor are they managed by a single organization that could readily coordinate nationwide or regional data collection.”
    I don’t know about how you do things in america but in the uk our buses run on regular routes, and at much more frequent times than a postal truck.

    This is the height of ridiculousness. just because you can put a computer in something to measure something else does not mean you have to. Even if this was to happen, an arduino would probably be the second last platform of choice, just above a monkey handcuffed to a typewriter.

  3. This has pretty much zero return on investment.

    A corporation wouldn’t invest in the idea with so little return on the cost of the system. Only the idiocies of pork legislation would cause something like this to happen. Likely make a company that a congressman has an investment in make a load of money before being canceled.

    If it magically happened at zero cost, the cost of ongoing data management would still outweigh the benefit. Exactly how many data points and how geographically dense do we need information on the ozone?

  4. or at the very least a correction posted to clear up the misinformation. If i have to worry Make is going to be inaccurate and full of politically motivated misinformation ill just quit reading make.

  5. Here are my two cents:

    First, yes, the $8.5 billion loss is actually best described as illusory. However, the opinion says the Postal Service reported the loss in its financial statements, not that the author is asserting it as genuine. I suspect that the Times editors included this statement to set the context for the piece, as it seems unrelated to the rest. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the Postal Service is likely to run out of cash on September 30, 2011 if no legislative change occurs.

    In fact, removing the artificial burden of retiree health care prepayments and some workers compensation adjustments, etc., the actual remaining loss of the Postal Service last year was about a half billion dollars. And this was during a terrible recessionary period. The author did not assert the loss.

    Second, such a system would never be the primary line of defense for homeland security. But attacks would be unlikely to occur on the Kansas prairie, either. For places and times of high risk, such as a national event, say a football championship game or an Olympic competition, this would be one way of providing additional warning elements and possible earlier interception and alert. Just because something does not perform all the needed functions is no reason to consider it as a supplemental mechanism, one that is highly geographically selectable.

    Third, you don’t need to use all the trucks every day to construct a baseline measurement or assessment map. You can take 20 sensors and slap them on a different set of twenty trucks each day and gradually cover a whole region. Since the sensors and transmitters are likely to be very small and portable, this portability does not seem likely to be much of a challenge.

    Fourth, it seems reasonable that the Postal Service could simply make the space available on the outside of trucks for a modest rental fee to a legitimate customer, be it an agency or a company or a university research department. I do not see that an entire infrastructure need be constructed at the outset.

    Fifth, it seems like this is one of those things with distributed social benefits and thus creates a form of market failure. Applications may not be readily or directly linked to paying customers, but those applications may nevertheless be extremely valuable. That is a challenge but not insoluble. How much would it cost to construct the postal system from scratch?

    Overall, this idea seems a bit more more nuanced and more promising than the commenters suggest.

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