Real-time location systems (RTLS) have become the foundation for applications that boost efficiency, productivity and safety in every industry you can think of. The ability to accurately locate and track assets and people allows processes to be optimized and helps employees to focus on activities that bring more value to the organization. This insight into how physical objects move, viewed through a digital prism, has made RTLS crucial to achieving next-level operational efficiencies. It’s become clear that without RTLS, it’s impossible to see everything that’s really going on in a facility.
What is RTLS?
You can think of Real-Time Location Systems (RTLS) or indoor positioning systems (IPS) as accomplishing the same essential task as the GPS systems of twenty years ago. The big difference is that RTLS is updated to more modern tech standards and capabilities and used primarily indoors for the purpose of tracking, locating and monitoring the activity of people and things. RTLS deployments do exactly what the name says, they let you see where tracked things and people are right now. They have any number of obvious business applications in any sector you care to name and form the basis of a long list of business-critical operations.
Real-Time Location Systems enable businesses to understand and utilize their assets efficiently. They make daily operations more transparent and aid in the process of optimization. Along with the development of digital transformation, a number of options and standards have appeared. Bluetooth, UWB, LTE, and Zigbee all provide a great service to businesses despite using different methods. Getting the most out of a connected infrastructure begins with the choice of standard, and the technologies available are rapidly changing. With the recently announced Bluetooth 5.1 standard, Bluetooth offers completely new capabilities to asset tracking at a fraction of the cost of other standards. It benefits from a large existing ecosystem of over 8.2 billion Bluetooth devices worldwide, making it the most widely adopted standard for short range wireless communication.
How does Bluetooth Low Energy RTLS work?
The importance of any RTLS rests in the data it transfers or collects. The most basic systems (like those based on NFC or passive RFID) simply register when an asset passes through a location. Bluetooth LE tags used in Real-Time Location Systems (RTLS) present significant opportunities for companies to increase the visibility of their assets, employees and resources. The low cost of the technology also makes it applicable in settings where such advanced systems might not have been otherwise feasible. The growing popularity of RTLS systems will lead to new use cases, and the replacement of older, less sophisticated systems like RFID and barcodes.
But let’s take a step back and quickly cover the basics of how Bluetooth Low Energy acts as the “language” that connects the elements in a physical infrastructure. Beacons—or, in their smaller forms used in certain use cases, “tags”—are small wireless devices that are powered by Bluetooth Low Energy. Think of them as a kind of super-miniature lighthouse—they constantly send out a signal that other Bluetooth-enabled devices can “see”. But instead of shining a light that warns ships to stay away from the rocky shore, beacon signals are made up of a combination of letters and numbers transmitted on short, regular intervals. This might sound complicated, but essentially the beacon sending out a message—“I’m here!”—to any device that might be ready to receive that signal.
Bear in mind that the beacon sending out this signal to the world might be stationary, perhaps mounted on a wall, or mobile, attached to someone or something moving around a space.
It’s only when another device “hears” the signal broadcast by the beacon that any application can go to work. This requires, not only receiving the signal, but processing it through a piece of software programmed to do something as a result. This is why any beacon-based project requires at least two more components: a receiver to pick up the signal and an application to turn that information into some useful action.
A receiver is a Bluetooth-enabled device that “listens” to beacon signals in its range and passes all the information it grabs to the application. The application, located in the cloud, computes the data and translates it into whatever it was programmed to show. Comprehensive solutions like Simon, a Location Analytics Platform, gathers all the data collected from beacons, tags, and other sensors and translates them into actionable insights so that you know within a click of a button where the assets you are looking for is located or how many people located in certain areas, etc.
Here’s a simplified visual representation of the flow of information and activity:
Sorting through the hardware options available is typically one of the first challenges for anyone looking into RTLS deployments. The various functionalities that different platforms deliver and their associated costs are summarized here:
Although this is a general estimate that holds true across a wide variety of deployments, every project is different. The exact cost of your RTLS will depend on which aspects of the deployment are most critical in your use case.
What’s more, BLE is supported by a growing number of WiFi access point vendors. This means that you can run a BLE-based RTLS on a WiFi network, without the need to install additional gateways, saving on hardware, installation, and maintenance costs.
It’s important to understand the unseen value that comes with using BLE as the foundation for proximity solutions. Much of it comes from the comfort of knowing that you’re future-proofing your project with a technology that has become the industry standard while still growing dynamically and adding functionalities. Your BLE infrastructure can serve as the backbone for future additions and expansions that you haven’t even thought of yet, but you’ll be ready for when the time comes.
This worldwide, BLE-based ecosystem creates network effects and efficiencies. Kontakt.io is integrated with leading WiFi Access Point Providers such as Ruckus, Mist Systems, and Bluetooth gateway partners: Rigado, Quuppa, and Cassia Networks. This means more solutions that are ready to “talk” to each other right out of the box.
How tags differ: shapes, features, and other factors
Tracking tags come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, giving you a number of options for different environments and use cases. For general purposes, it might not matter whether your Bluetooth LE tag is long, short, or anything else. However, for some, it will matter greatly. For example, some assets will be difficult to affix a tag to. Here, you may be able to use a Card Tag or other thin or specially-designed tag. Similarly, the external shell on Bluetooth tags can differ. While most are durable enough for the daily grind, they generally won’t be ready for very cold weather or physical stress. That’s what tags like the Tough Beacon are for.
RFID and Bluetooth tag hardware differences include variations in to what degree they are:
Then, there are sensors. Accelerometers, along with light, temperature, humidity, and other types of sensors are able to add more capabilities to your existing infrastructure and provide insights relevant to your use case. These enhancements can also add to the initial cost of your infrastructure but by leveraging these sensors to increase energy saving initiatives, they may also help your infrastructure last months or years longer.
Before you select your hardware, decide how accurate you need to be
You can see that there are a number of hardware options available. They respond to the particular needs of different use cases and the various environmental factors that have to be taken into consideration. Still, there is another variable that has a strong influence on the kind of hardware you’ll need for a particular deployment—accuracy.
You might think that super-hyper-mega-accuracy is always the best way to go with RTLS but that’s not the case at all. For the majority of use cases, what is called “Zonal accuracy” is more than enough. In other situations, “XY positioning” is called for, but comes with a price tag. Before you start the process of planning an RTLS deployment, you must have a clear understanding of which scenario applies to your business needs.
Zonal accuracy asset tracking
Both BLE and Active RFID systems use tags to send out a signal to devices that detect those signals every few seconds. These signals can be analyzed to determine the exact location of the tags. Both systems also operate at room level, meaning they are ideal for Zonal Tracking. However, while passive RFID tags are very cheap, active RFID tags and readers are not.
The widely-used Fx9500 Fixed RFID Reader from Zebra costs around $1,500 and it’s nowhere near the high end of the market. And while Active RFID readers commonly cost between $1,000 and $5,000, a Bluetooth gateway with the same capabilities can cost less than $200.
The total first-year costs for a 1000-unit active RFID real time location system, including software and hardware, can easily reach approximately $40,000. An infrastructure delivering the same functionality using Bluetooth costs around a quarter of that.
How can BLE be so much cheaper?
One reason is that BLE has a far longer reach. RFID has a very short range, meaning you need to have a lot more hardware to cover the same area as a Bluetooth-based system.
What level of accuracy does your real time location system really require?
The level of accuracy a real-time location system provides is generally related directly to the technology chosen. Both BLE and RFID RTLS are ideal for zonal or room-level tracking. This means they can tell a manager “this asset is in this room.”
That’s usually more than enough for most use cases. More precise solutions can tell a manager on which shelf or in which corner an asset is located, but these are in another price range altogether. For most scenarios, room-level tracking is more than sufficient.
Zonal Tracking: A level of tracking that is neither ultra-granular nor incredibly vague. This is much like “room-” or “area-level” as opposed to marking the exact position on a particular shelf in a particular space.
Exact position X,Y asset tracking
Consider a situation where “in this room” isn’t good enough and you need something more like “on this shelf”-type accuracy to get the job done right. Warehousing, for example can present such demands, as can inventory management in manufacturing processes.
A higher degree of tracking and positioning accuracy can now be achieved with Kontakt.io Location Engine and ecosystem partners. This is the ideal solution for use cases where very precise information results in greater efficiencies and lower costs while facilitating overall performance. Both Bluetooth Low Energy and UWB (ultra-wide band) tags and beacons can be used for XY positioning.
As with zone-level deployments, making the right hardware decisions early on, based on a clear understanding of your needs, helps to ensure that the solution you eventually deploy delivers the results you expect.
Bluetooth 5.1 (Angle of Arrival)
Angle of Arrival (AoA) is a new technology and an exciting part of the BLE 5.1 update. Support for it is expected to create new possibilities based on its ability to significantly improve location precision. AoA is just getting off the ground but, to return to what we mentioned earlier about future-proofing your deployments through the use of Bluetooth Low Energy, you’ll be ready to take advantage of it when it catches up and becomes more integrated into the BLE ecosystem.
Common use cases for RTLS
Worker and Asset tracking
Workers, however, are not the only thing moving around a factory. Increased automation has led to more tasks being handled by machines. This shift has offered great possibilities as well as risks. An effective asset tracking system could help machine operators better navigate the factory by determining the most urgent tasks and the shortest paths. Furthermore, tracking the movement of machinery and workers in a factory will help create a safer work environment, minimizing accidents and maintenance costs.
Proximity tracking with BLE beacons also has applications directly within production. In less automated factories, where goods spend a longer time at each station, managers can benefit from the monitoring of assets as they move through the production process. One crucial example case includes industries that emphasize craftsmanship and products with a high degree of customization. For this reason, the technology has proven especially useful when manufacturing luxury goods and quality medical prostheses. These production units are usually smaller than a highly automated production line. Though smaller factories have been previously unable to deploy such technology, the low cost and simplicity of Bluetooth makes advanced RTLS possible even for smaller manufacturers.
Hospitals are information-intensive organizations. By increasing the amount of data captured and improving communication, RTLS can help improve the overall quality of care while simultaneously decreasing costs. This helps hospitals ensure that the right person and equipment are always in the right place at the right time. BLE-based RTLS also has the benefit of being easy to integrate into smartphones, computers, and other devices, minimizing infrastructure costs.
The most frequent use of BLE beacons in the medical sector is the tracking of medical equipment, which is often expensive. Keeping track of each piece as it moves around a hospital, and being able to quickly locate it when needed, is a real challenge. Because many existing managing inventory systems are incredibly inefficient, hospitals are actually buying too much of it. Estimates indicate that hospitals will purchase 10% to 20% more equipment than actually required for operational needs. Considering the amount of money hospitals can spend on medical equipment annually, the actual effectiveness and return on investment for a RTLS-based inventory tracking system should be carefully examined
Employee Tracking (security, smart mustering)
Besides having an unbeatable cost-to-performance ratio, perhaps the strongest argument for BLE-based RTLS is the ability to use everyday devices like smartphones to determine location. In the application of employee tracking, this is a significant advantage of Bluetooth-based RTLS. The high cost of previous systems meant they could not be feasibly deployed in many scenarios. Video has often been the only means by which operations over large areas could be monitored. The introduction of BLE has changed this by making smart and cost-effective solutions available for firms of all sizes.
Smart Badges and Cards
The convenient form factor of BLE-enabled cards and badges adds another dimension to the proximity-based functionalities used in business environments. These devices are easily carried and attached to moving assets, creating a number of useful benefits. Access to certain areas can be granted or denied to individual employees or others on premises, like visitors or vendors. This has obvious implications for security and safety in sensitive or potentially dangerous environments.
Speaking of safety, cards and badges can be enabled with a panic button that can send an immediate call for help in the event of an emergency.
For employees, BLE cards and badges can provide extremely accurate registration of when they enter and leave work areas, replacing conventional and often unreliable time clocks.
Bluetooth-based RTLS deployments can transform business environments and deliver game-changing efficiencies. With a wide range of hardware options available, it’s important to clearly define the objectives of your use case before advancing further into the planning stage. Of the competing platforms for RTLS, none deliver the functionalities, cost-effectiveness and future-proof flexibility of Bluetooth Low Energy.
There are many reasons why BLE has emerged as the standard for RTLS solutions across a number of verticals. An ecosystem of billions of devices powered by BLE worldwide is just the beginning. If you’re looking at the potential benefits of an RTLS deployment in your business, we can help. Kontakt.io offers both the hardware and software to help you build or provide a complete out of the box RTLS solution.