Safer, Smarter Student Transportation
Arriving late to school is stressful for everyone — from harried parents rushing to work and teachers trying to manage their classrooms to students starting their day already behind.
The disciplinary and academic burden of late arrivals is real and meaningful: One study found that late arrivals contributed to 25% of the variance on a state math test — students who were chronically late to class were less likely to pass their exams. According to another report, students who miss the beginning of school will often miss out on important announcements and group activities that build connections with fellow students.
This makes the familiar yellow buses we take for granted in the United States a crucial component of each school district’s educational mission. Each year, school buses save American families 62 billion miles of driving, and students who take the bus are 70 times more likely to arrive at school safely. Additionally, access to transit has been found to support improved educational equality for all students.
Now, Pennsylvania-based NxStop is connecting those buses to the cloud to provide real-time location tracking that saves school districts time and money, gives parents peace of mind, and helps to ensure that students never have to miss the bus again.
President and Co-Founder, NxStop
With Soracom, we have everything centralized in one dashboard. There’s a lot of valuable data that we can see, so we know what we’re getting and how things are performing.
A bold vision… and a tough customer
“Growing up, I lived on a farm,” says NxStop President and Co-founder James Polhemus. “I had to walk to the end of my driveway every morning at about 6:00 AM to get my bus.” One particularly dreadful sub-zero morning in his junior year of high school, Polhemus waited alone in the cold for 20 minutes before realizing the bus had already come and gone.
“First I thought, ‘how am I going to get to school?’ Then, I took a step back and realized that this was a problem that I’ve faced many times — and it wasn’t just my problem.”
Polhemus enlisted support from his friends Lehman Peng, a hardware expert, and Dan Rose, a software prodigy who had attracted attention from companies like Microsoft before they realized he was still in high school. Together, they began to explore the idea of a device “that would know exactly when your bus was arriving and give you live tracking.”
Many school buses already have some form of GPS hardware installed, but these modules are typically out of date and designed more for long-haul use cases with no provision for real-time data transmission. The team developed an updated real-time solution, and their school district’s Director of Transportation agreed to meet with them to learn more. For a team of high school students working on a big idea, that meeting served as a rapid education in the real-world constraints most school districts have to navigate.
“He started throwing questions at us about how the tech would work, what we would do in the event of a bus substitution, how we would secure the data… We didn’t know the answers, but we’ve always embraced a mentality of looking at problems as opportunities. So we decided to think through these problems more deeply.”
Peace of mind for students, parents, and school districts
That meeting set the NxStop founders on the path to develop their project into a product offering that could succeed in the real world.
As entrepreneurs, they knew that the practical challenges also represented barriers to entry for potential competitors. A real-time GPS solution that could both add real value for students, parents, and administrators and fulfil the requirements of district transportation and IT departments would have a meaningful advantage in a nationwide market.
The team spent the next several years developing their commercial product, sourcing components and manufacturing capability in China and the U.S. while refining hardware and software capabilities. A successful solution would need to accommodate edge cases like last-minute bus substitutions along with crucial external constraints, like the stringent privacy regulations that govern access to student data.
With GPS hardware updating on a second-by-second basis, and cloud-based software connecting to district databases daily to ensure that only custodial parents or guardians can access student data, NxStop was able to secure a contract with their first customer, a school district in rural Pennsylvania.
This introduced a new challenge: how to stay connected when even cellular data coverage may be spotty.
Multicarrier coverage with centralized management tools
“Previously, we were using an MVNO that wasn’t really geared for IoT — just for phones,” Pohlemus says. “There was no interface to see how much data you were using or where your units were. It was a very bare bones process. With Soracom, we have everything centralized in one dashboard.”
At any given time, NxStop has real-time insight into performance.
“I really like how Soracom roams on multiple carrier networks to ensure greater connectivity,” says Pohlemus. “There’s a lot of valuable data that we can see, so we know what we’re getting and how things are performing. We also have access to customer support with knowledgeable engineers who understand the nitty gritty of what we’re building.”
Services in use
• SORACOM Air: smart connectivity for IoT
A first systemwide customer
Today, NxStop is up and running in the Palisade School District, which serves a rural community of 1500 students and operates a fleet of 60 buses.
“We now serve about 60% of the parent base in this district,” Pohlemus says. “I’m most proud of the accuracy of what we created. There are companies that have a similar solution, but very often, what they do is just geo-fence a certain parameter. The system will only notify you when the bus enters the geofence. But it doesn’t offer an ETA to parents.”
According to Pohlemus, similar companies have given up on offering an ETA feature due to the difficulty of building and implementing it.
“I feel proud that we didn’t give up on that,” he says. “NxStop tells you where the buses are every second. You know when it’s going to arrive, and you’re updated every step of the way.”
NxStop has already introduced a number of features designed to help improve safety for students and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, the team is now shifting their attention to AI and machine learning capabilities that can derive greater value and insight from their growing data set.
“We’re looking to suggest smarter routes and build solutions for when buses break down and there’s a need for a substitute,” says Pohlemus. “Right now, dispatchers log into the system manually. We are working on an automated system that will automatically assign a substitute bus without any user intervention. I’m really excited about this because it points toward the future of interconnectivity in transportation.”