Shipping sensor goes to work for climate science

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The sensor can keep tabs of where a package is located, if it has been opened, and more. Credit: Strouse/NIST

A device the size of a deck of playing cards that can track temperature, humidity, light and barometric pressure is moving from the shipping world to the realm of research to help develop a better understanding of how the climate is changing.


The device, called SenseAware, was originally designed by the international shipping company FedEx to monitor critical shipments — packages that include things like organs, blood, and vaccines, which must be kept within exact temperature ranges. The sensor can keep tabs of where a package is located, if it has been opened, and all kinds of , according to Michelle Proctor, director of innovation at FedEx.

Proctor’s team went to the National Institute of Standards and Technology to make sure the device was sufficiently exacting, and that’s where the plan was hatched to use it for research.

“We decided to take the sensors to another level, and use it as a ,” said Greg Strouse, leader of NIST’s Temperature and Humidity Group.

This week, the sensors will be placed at three different locations in a around NIST’s campus in Gaithersburg, Md. Their first task will be to obtain a mix of measurements.

“The historical data in climate, the reference data sets, is based on analog mercury thermometer measurements,” said Strouse.

Strouse said that the uncertainty attached to those old-style is not well understood, so one of the plans is to measure the historical method and the current digital method side by side to get a better grasp of the differences. The SenseAware device is accurate to within 0.02 degrees Celsius and able to send and store data for up to 30 days. The battery can also be charged by a solar panel.