Safe Passage

March 1, 2010
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Bolivia’s North Yungas Road is a hazardous route for workers who travel in the region.


For mountain bikers and excitement junkies, the journey between the city of La Paz, Bolivia, and the Amazonian Basin is an opportunity for an adrenalin-pumping adventure. And rightly so. The road between these regions stuns travelers not only with its beautiful Andean mountain views but also with its deadliness.

Once classified as the world’s most dangerous road, it is estimated that the steep and narrow North Yungas Road--dubbed El Camino de la Muerte, or The Road of Death--claimed 200 to 300 lives each year before an improvement project was completed in 2006. Some parts of the road were enlarged and paved, and a new section was constructed between Chusquipata and Yolosa, which allows travelers to bypass one of the most-dangerous portions of the old route. But despite the improvements, plenty of hazardous conditions still exist along the winding mountain road, including single-lane widths of 10 feet or less that accommodate two-way traffic, sheer dropoffs and a curious lack of guard rails. As if that weren’t enough, fog, rain and dust decrease visibility to make the drive even more precarious. 

ReportNet uses Google Earth to display locations of vehicles. The platform allows users to overlay their own custom maps.

North Yungas Road is a regular business route for Geofisica Geokinetics Bolivia, a unit of Texas-based geophysical services company Geokinetics. So it is no surprise that the safety of the company’s drivers, as well as its fleet of pickup trucks, ambulances and buses, is a chief concern.

To track and monitor vehicle movement, the company at one time relied on data loggers that recorded and stored general vehicle information like driver identification, vehicle speed, hard braking and distance traveled. However, the data logging system had many limitations. Since the information was stored in the vehicle, it had to be retrieved manually. Downloading historical information from the data logger could only be done using a portable laptop. Consequently, vehicle usage information was only reviewed once a week or whenever it was possible. In addition, since there was no GPS location information, there was no historical record of the driving routes used and whether the drivers were following the posted speed limits.

However, the biggest flaw with the data logging system was the inability to locate the driver in an emergency, according to Pedro Linares, operations assistant for the the company’s transportation department. “We needed a system that would allow us to quickly locate vehicles and drivers so that in the event of an accident, we would know exactly where to send the rescue team,” Linares says.

Users can create geofences around specific areas of interest and be notified when vehicles enter and exit these areas.

Flexible Real-Time Tracking

The limitations of the data logging system along with the crucial need to track vehicles and drivers in real time forced Geofisica Geokinetics Bolivia to search for an alternate solution. The firm required a system that could operate in remote regions where cellular communication is not available, but it also wanted to be able to take advantage of cellular connectivity to send more information when the vehicle was within reach of urban communication networks. Additionally, the system had to provide a way to accurately monitor driver performance and poll the location of the vehicle anytime.

Based on these requirements, the geophysical services firm selected a system offered by Monnet, based in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. The system included a SureLinx 8100, a dual-mode satellite/cellular tracking device provided by Canadian SkyWave Mobile Communications, along with Monnet’s ReportNet Web-based tracking and monitoring software.

The device allows Geofisica Geokinetics Bolivia to track the location of its vehicles every two minutes when fieldworkers have cellular connectivity and the vehicle is in motion. If the vehicle is stationary, location information is sent every five minutes. 

Vehicles navigate a treacherous ridge along North Yungas Road.

When the vehicles are in remote regions where cellular networks are not available, the system logs location information into its internal memory every five minutes when the vehicle is in motion and every 30 minutes when stationary. Every hour, the communication device sends an update on the location and speed of the vehicle through Inmarsat’s satellite network to Monnet’s ReportNet. Data stored within the SureLinx memory are sent by general packet radio service (GPRS) once the vehicle re-enters an area with cellular coverage or are downloaded manually using a laptop computer.

Since the communication terminal is configurable even when the units are deployed in the field, Geofisica Geokinetics Bolivia can change the reporting frequency anytime. The company can also poll the current location of any of its vehicles whenever the need arises for logistics or safety reasons.

The satellite/cellular system also allowed Geofisica Geokinetics Bolivia to implement some additional changes that were not possible with the original data logger. “A radio frequency identification (RFID) reader was installed in each vehicle,” says Clover Andrade, a manager at Monnet. “Every driver is required to scan [his or her] driver identification card prior to operating a vehicle. Without valid driver identification, the engine remains locked and will not operate.”

Since the system uses satellite tracking, there are virtually no remote regions where the user cannot pinpoint the exact location of a vehicle as well as determine the direction in which it is traveling. 

Improved Safety

Using electronic geofences (defined geographic boundaries), Monnet engineers also configured the SureLinx communication terminals to record speeding incidents by regions, hard-braking incidents and speed information in the 50 seconds prior to the braking incident.

To assist drivers with safe driving, buzzers were installed inside the vehicles. “Every time the driver exceeds the speed limit or any other driving violation, the event is logged in the memory of the device and an auditory warning is given,” Andrade says. “This helps remind drivers to pay close attention to their driving practices.”

ReportNet automatically generates driver reports, which include a driver performance index. The index is a measure of the number of violations recorded by SureLinx and takes into account the severity of the violation. The index allows the geophysical company to identify the drivers that need the most training. “Not only are we able to coach drivers into better driving practices,” Linares says, “we have the added benefit of being able to recognize drivers who are exhibiting good driving behavior.”

In the event of an accident, panic buttons installed in each vehicle can be pressed to send an emergency message to ReportNet, which, in turn, e-mails all appropriate health and safety personnel that an incident has occured. “We immediately know when a vehicle is involved in an accident and where to send the rescue team,” Linares says. “The system has improved our chances of saving the driver’s life and retrieving the vehicle quickly.”

In addition to improved safety, Geofisica Geokinetics Bolivia’s operating expenses have gone down. According to Linares, since the drivers are using the vehicles more carefully, the company has seen a reduction in maintenance costs for its fleets.

As Geofisica Geokinetics Bolivia expands its operations into other remote regions, the real-time vehicle tracking system keeps the company, its employees and its fleet on a more-secure path. “By ensuring that drivers are operating their vehicles correctly,” Linares says, “we can reduce the number of accidents and increase the safety of our drivers.”

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