New technology that tracks individual containers and their contents could help shippers get full visibility into a murky area of the supply chain. It could also make ocean shipping viable for high-value cargo traditionally shipped by air.

Ocean importers and exporters are a big step closer to their long-sought objective of “total visibility” with the arrival of smart, connected shipping containers.

A number of companies have developed containers that use built-in relay antennas and other technology to monitor and track contents in realtime. CMA CGM, the giant French ocean carrier, is an investor in one such start-up, TRAXENS.

Last year, the CMA CGM Bougainville, an 18,000 TEU vessel, was equipped with shipboard systems that collect and transmit data from containers fitted with TRAXENS technology. The technology gathers data on location, temperature, humidity, vibrations, impacts, attempted tampering, customs clearance status and other factors.

Smart-box technology first entered wide use by militaries and governments intent on monitoring shipments of sensitive cargo. In commercial shipping, the technology eventually could play a huge role in the shipment of refrigerated cargo and perishables by enabling users to control and adjust temperature and humidity levels inside of containers while in transit.

There are landside benefits as well. On arrival, customs officials can clear cargo faster if they’ve got an audit trail created by the smart container. Shippers sharing the data with partners – trucking companies, for instance – can load and exit the port faster and with less waiting time.

In some cases, insurers are willing to offer rebates and lower rates to shippers and carriers using smart containers. Insurers also have indicated that the technology might allow them to offer insurance on cargo that wasn’t traditionally insurable.

Use of connected containers could ultimately help shippers reduce transit times and cut losses from damage and spoilage, says Cas Pouderoyen, Agility Senior Vice President for Ocean Product.

“What’s unclear is how many customers are willing to pay for enhanced service and how quickly smart boxes will become the industry standard. Carriers are under severe financial strain right now, so they aren’t likely to invest in shipboard technology unless they feel they can recoup their cost or feel that failure to invest means they’ll lose market share,” Pouderoyen says.