What’s new in wireless, RFID for IoT asset tracking?
Recent innovations have been good for tracking technology providers and end-users; what’s in the pipeline seems likely to provide additional industrial benefits.
- Learn how advances in GNSS, 5G and other networking technologies are expanding the capabilities of asset tracking devices.
- Review use cases for asset tracking technologies, including people, pet and livestock trackers; container trackers for goods in motion; fleet trackers for cars, e-bikes and micromobility vehicles; and power tool trackers.
Asset tracking insights
- Enabled by the widespread adoption of GNSS-based tracking devices, IoT trackers have made it possible to keep tabs on everything you value, all the time.
- Tapping into this value with IoT tracking technologies requires a suite of components, including tags, a positioning system, a positioning engine and wireless communication to the cloud.
- Emerging demand-side trends related to IoT tracking include demand for broader coverage, improved performance, lower power requirements and tighter integration.
Just a decade ago, not knowing the exact whereabouts of your child, pet or vulnerable family member every now and then was simply part of life. The same was true in business and industries: From the moment a valuable shipment left the supplier until it was added to your inventory, it was all but impossible to know exactly where it was and what state it was in.
Today, such lack of visibility is increasingly considered poor practice, wasteful or downright irresponsible and multiple technologies, including wireless and radio frequency identification (RFID) are being applied to make industrial applications.
Enabled by the widespread adoption of GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite Systems)-based tracking devices — in our cars, our phones and on our wrists, but also throughout corporate logistics chains — IoT trackers have made it possible to keep tabs on everything you value, all the time. It has paid off: Tech-savvy businesses have been quick to translate the visibility the tracking devices provide into increased efficiency and revenues.
But, as so often, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. IoT trackers come in all shapes and sizes and leverage a growing portfolio of enabling technologies to meet the specific constraints of the use cases they serve. Device size, positioning accuracy, power autonomy, update frequency, required message sizes, latency, scalability, solution complexity, maintenance requirements, upgradeability, service availability and cost are just a sampling of the many competing constraints device manufacturers need to balance when developing tracking solutions.
The good news is that, with the right expertise, today’s device developers can select from a growing bag of technological tricks to build smaller, better hardware options, speed up and simplify integration to back-end cloud IoT platforms and reduce the total cost of ownership of the products while, at the same time, growing their margins.
Below, understand the benefits from some of the main use cases we see in industrial asset tracking, explore the technologies they rely on, and help decrypt some of the more salient trends that are driving the market.
The many components of IoT tracking technologies
Accurate real-time insight into the what, the when and the where of people and assets can help keep them safe and protected, detect and address inefficient processes and improve planning.
Tapping into this value with IoT tracking technologies requires a suite of components:
Tags: All assets being tracked need to be equipped with tags capable of sensing data required to determine their location using a positioning system.
Positioning system: The positioning needs to cover the target area. It can, for example, be made up of orbiting satellites as used by global navigation satellite systems (GNSS). Other variants use existing cellular network base stations, Wi-Fi access points or locally deployed beacons. The positioning system can be supported by additional services, noted later.
Positioning engine: The positioning engine translates physical measurements made by the tags or the infrastructure as well as additional information into an accurate location estimate. The positioning engine can, for example, run on the tag, on a local processor or on the cloud.
Wireless communication to the cloud: For the location data to be useful to the end-user, real-time IoT tracking technologies require a wireless communication channel to the local or cloud-hosted tracking software. Depending on the deployment, tags can transmit data directly to the cloud, or they can relay it via a mobile phone or locally deployed wireless gateway.
Generally, IoT trackers need optimal energy efficiency in their main hardware components paired with an open-standard, secure, scalable and portable low-power wireless communication channel to the cloud.
A selection of IoT tracking use cases
Today, IoT trackers can be used to monitor the location of just about anything in real time. Here we look at a selection of tracking use cases that illustrate the diversity of the solution architectures and performance specifications.
People, pet and livestock trackers
People, pet and livestock trackers are typically small, battery-powered, body-worn devices, most commonly used outdoors. While the exact requirements vary from use case to use case, they typically offer medium to high positioning accuracy with a medium to high position update rate. [Safety applications exist for workplaces.]
Power optimization is essential to guarantee a high level of service availability between charges. Because they are used in changing outdoor environments, they commonly require an IoT SIM card and a cellular data connection to relay data back to the cloud.
Container trackers for goods in motion
Container trackers for goods in motion are designed for maximum power autonomy and comprise a variety of wireless communication technologies. These include low-power wide-area cellular connectivity when coverage is available, Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connectivity to a local hub or gateway for satellite communication and short-range communication to offload data to PDAs and similar devices.
To keep power requirements to a minimum, container trackers can dramatically reduce the positioning update frequency and use a cloud-based positioning engine.
Fleet trackers for cars, e-bikes and micromobility vehicles
IoT trackers used to report the position of fleets of cars or micromobility vehicles in real time have access to the vehicle’s battery. Because their output is often relied on for billing and to monitor compliance to traffic rules, vehicle fleet trackers need accurate positioning in challenging urban environments.
Cellular network fingerprinting and assisted GNSS can shorten the time required to determine the vehicle’s position, saving power. Meanwhile, dead reckoning solutions can integrate inertial sensor data to overcome interruptions in GNSS coverage and mitigate the impact of multipath effects caused when GNSS signals bounce off buildings before reaching the GNSS receiver.
To enforce regulations, such as no-ride and speed-limited zones, solutions are evolving from standard GNSS technology with meter-level accuracy to multi-band dead reckoning solutions that use GNSS augmentation services to achieve accuracies down to just a few centimeters. These solutions typically require medium bandwidth cellular communication technologies to transmit location data to the customer back-end and receive constant GNSS augmentation data.
Power tool trackers
Power tool trackers ideally need positioning systems capable of offering seamless indoor and outdoor coverage on construction sites. Small size, long power autonomy and full availability are essential to ensure that the trackers add value to construction site managers.
Solutions can, for example, combine GNSS technology for outdoor positioning outdoors with Bluetooth indoor positioning solutions that take over when GNSS signals are unavailable.
Trends in IoT tracking technology
IoT tracking technology has made huge advances over the past decade. Technological progress on the supply side continues to enable ever more sophisticated high-performance use cases. At the same time, it is driving up customer expectations on the demand side.
Demand-side trends that are clearly visible are:
Demand for broader coverage, both geographically as well as in mixed indoor-outdoor environments,
Improved performance in terms of accuracy and reliability,
lower power requirements for longer battery autonomy or smaller end device size,
Tighter integration with a shorter bill of material and fewer suppliers to manage the supply chain situation,
Faster time to market,
Lower total cost of ownership.
Fortunately, innovation is apace on the supply side, with coverage, performance, power requirements and technological integration improving with each new generation of the technology.
Outdoor location coverage has been improving with the introduction of multi-constellation GNSS receivers that see a greater number of satellites than standard GNSS receivers, even when they are surrounded by tall buildings in a deep urban canyon. Assisted GNSS has cut the time it takes for the receiver to achieve a first position fix to mere seconds. Cellular fingerprinting techniques have essentially eliminated zero-position scenarios.
Indoor location coverage also has been improved with the growing adoption of Bluetooth direction finding and indoor positioning as well as ultrawide-band technology.
At the same time, wireless connectivity solutions are offering increased coverage, with low-power wide-area networks offering enhanced reach over standard consumer 4G LTE networks, while mesh-based short-range solutions extend the range of the transmission across trains, containerships and different forms of load carriers used in warehouses.
Positioning performance has increased, again driven by the mainstreaming of multi-band, multi-constellation GNSS receivers, high precision positioning solutions, such as real-time kinematics and a growing selection of GNSS augmentation services for centimeter-level positioning. Dead reckoning technologies that fuse inertial and vehicle sensor data with the GNSS receiver output and vehicle-specific dynamic models reduce the impact of multipath effects and GNSS signal interruptions.
Power autonomy has been on the rise as well thanks to a convergence of multiple technological developments. These include more sensitive antennas, lower-power components used to design GNSS receivers and 4G LTE cellular radios. Cloud-based positioning is opening new avenues toward ultra-low power GNSS positioning for applications that only need to sporadically determine their location. And innovations such as multi-constellation GNSS and assisted GNSS shorten the time the GNSS receiver needs to spend in the power-hungry signal acquisition mode before switching to the lower-power tracking mode.
Tighter integration is another trend enabled by the emergence of powerful dual-core MCUs capable of hosting a computing controller and the Bluetooth low energy, Wi-Fi or cellular software stack. The move from complex architectures with a stand-alone application MCU and radio technology stacks on separate processor cores to a simpler architecture integrating everything on a dual-core MCU offers opportunities for reduced time to market, fewer components, fewer suppliers and shorter development times.
This is just the beginning for IoT tracking technologies
It’s still early days in the industrial adoption of IoT-based tracking solutions. The technology has clearly proven its merits. But driven by technological progress, competition and unpredictable factors such as the current supply chain crisis, companies are being pressed to produce technologies that are at once smaller and more cost-effective, while offering better performance as well as simpler and faster integration into cloud platforms and ecosystems.
Because of the diversity of the IoT tracking market, technologies will continue to be tailored to the specific needs of the use cases they serve, drawing on some of the hardware components, system architectures, cloud-based services and underlying positioning and communication technologies outlined here.
On the supply side, innovation is continuing apace. Each generation of GNSS receiver technology brings new features that improve performance, coverage, power savings and size. Each new release of wireless communication standards helps ensure that data can be carried further, faster or more efficiently. MCUs are reaching higher levels of performance. Meanwhile, the cloud is being pulled in to do more and more of the heavy lifting.
Finally, as with the recently released Bluetooth direction finding, new technologies are closer to hitting the market, including low earth orbit satellites for cellular communication and positioning and 5G localization.
As more businesses tap into the value that IoT tracking can offer, the technological bag of tricks to meet the needs of the asset tracking market will continue to grow.
Diego Grassi, head of segment managers industrial, EMEA, u-blox. Edited by David Miller, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology, email@example.com.
Keywords: IoT, asset tracking, wireless
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