Matching real-time location technologies to growing tracking needs - Embedded.com

Matching real-time location technologies to growing tracking needs

Almost 14 years ago, one of the location systems company had announced the introduction of a software application platform that was designed to integrate with standard wireless network infrastructure from leading vendors such as Cisco Systems, Symbol, Aruba and Nortel. The location appliance provided accurate and precise location tracking for thousands of devices over a wireless local-area network (WLAN) and enabled a host of mobile enterprise applications such as asset tracking, network provisioning, voice and security. The location application was invented by Newbury Networks Inc.

The market for this type of asset tracking peaked in 2005 to 2007 and then subsided; some participants moved into new businesses, while others disappeared. Today, a number of startups and large companies, are taking a new run at this market, so it’s worth asking what has changed in 14 years and whether they have a better shot than their predecessors.

There are multiple technologies which are being offered by various companies. Primarily, real time location service (RTLS) offerings are driven using Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Ultra Wideband, GPS and RFID based technologies. A decade back, some of these technologies were something out of a sci-fi movie. But today, they are a reality and businesses are making the most of it to offer exceptional experiences to customers.

Do you know why RTLS is important for businesses? It can offer the following benefits:

  • Optimized asset management
  • Cost efficient
  • Improved staff management
  • Improved productivity
  • Most importantly, theft prevention.

The above-mentioned advantages are sufficient enough for many businesses to decide to implement RTLS within their premises. Now, RTLS is being used by business in various sectors like healthcare, mining, airports, logistics and retail, but it’s not limited to these sectors only.

With the spread of COVID-19 across the world, now it becomes more important for businesses to implement RTLS, which helps in automating the process. That means less manpower intervention, which in turn helps in social distancing that is required to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Who would have thought years ago when asset tracking was invented, that it would become a necessity for businesses in various sectors? Slowly businesses are coming forward to implement the technology.

For the healthcare sector, in particular, it’s more important than ever to implement RTLS to help them keep track of patients, identify people to come in close contact with infected patients, help with hospital asset management, assist with hospital staff management (including checking whether staff personnel are in the right place), and help confirm that healthcare providers have entered a hand wash area after exiting a patient’s room.

The airport sector is also an important sector where public and private airports need to implement this technology. During the COVID-19 crisis, when it is important to ensure social distancing and monitoring without manual contact, this technology helps in real time asset tracking and staff management at the airports. In addition, it helps in limiting the number of people present at a specific location.

Here, I list four of those popular RTLS technologies with their major pros and cons:

GPS

Pros

    • Accurate outdoor positioning (up to five meters)
    • Works everywhere outdoors – Mainly used for vehicle tracking or fleet of trucks
    • No infrastructure required

Cons

    • High energy use
    • Often interrupted by weather-related situations
    • Does not work indoor

Bluetooth Low Energy/BLE

Pros

    • Accurate indoor / outdoor (depending on infrastructure)
    • Low energy use (1/15th of GPS)

Cons

    • Access to Bluetooth required
    • Extra infrastructure of beacons required

Wi-Fi

Pros

    • More Accurate than GPS and BLE
    • Low energy use (1/10th of GPS)
    • Uses existing wireless infrastructure, no additional infrastructure required

Cons

    • Little bit costly

Ultra-Wideband (UWB)

Pros

    • High level of precision
    • Broadcast is kept very low powered so as not to interfere with other uses

Cons

    • Lot more expensive

Active and Passive RFID

Pros

    • Less expensive
    • Does not require any hardwired infrastructure, making installation very simple.

Cons

    • Delivers limited location information (knowing if an asset passed through a location at a certain time doesn’t tell you where it is now)
    • Room level accuracy only

Why was Wi-Fi asset tracking a difficult business back then? Two factors were crucial: battery life and system costs. But things have changed! Now, Wi-Fi has become an effective technology for multiple reasons including:

  • It uses the existing Infrastructure, even if the access points are far off located from each other, it uses the nearest access point method to determine the location. The system cost is reduced.
  • Wi-Fi chips are becoming cheaper and with low power technology being introduced, the battery life issue is also resolved.
  • People might complain of traffic in 2.4 GHz channel because they are only aware of 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi tags but there is an 5 GHz Wi-Fi tag also which was launched by Redpine Signals now, Silicon Labs. Still it stands as the only company in industry to have 5 GHz Wi-Fi tags. Operation in the 5 GHz band provides for close adherence to designed battery life compared to crowded 2.4 GHz channels.
  • Can be implemented in outdoor area to an extent if there is a wireless infrastructure available.

The following graph compares the technologies and give a clear picture in layman language:


Figure 1: Infrastructure Cost vs Tag Cost. (Source: Author)

However, depending upon business requirements, any of them can be deployed to connect with the customers, track assets, manage entities, and more.

The Wi-Fi asset tracking solution is still perhaps the most viable option as almost all the business already have an existing network infrastructure which can be readily used for real time location services.


Devanjan Sikdar is an engineer turned marketing professional having strong leadership qualities and vision with a strong business acumen. His expertise is in market analysis, strategizing the product road map, defining the go-to-market strategy, product marketing, and business development. Currently, Devanjan heads the Global Sales & Marketing of RTLS Business Unit at Silicon Labs.

 

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