Asset tracking used to be a matter of checklists and clipboards, taking up a lot of staff time. Mistakes were common, resulting in even more lost time as missing items are tracked down. It became obvious a long time ago that technology was a better solution for asset tracking, particularly in healthcare (where minutes to find a missing defibrillator or another device can result not just in lost productivity but a lost life). Outdoor positioning requires GPS, but GPS does not work for indoor positioning where there are high granularity and no clear view of the sky. Over time, different technologies have been developed for real-time asset tracking, making a number of solutions available, depending on your needs and budget. Different use cases require different solutions, so some would argue that there is no best technology for asset tracking. However, there are definitely technologies that are superior for different situations.
There are several technologies available for real-time asset tracking. Each of them has different pros and cons, different costs, and different ideal use cases. It is important to understand all of their functions in order to find the best technology for asset tracking that works for you. Here are some of the technologies readily available:
Bluetooth is often considered one of the best technologies for asset tracking. It offers low-cost tags with extremely long battery life, making them ideal for reusable assets. The tradeoff is the short-range, which requires a fairly tight grid to track assets. Bluetooth is also readable with many devices, including ordinary smartphones. As an RTLS solution, however, Bluetooth is extremely popular, and with reason. There will be more about Bluetooth later in this article. BLE asset tracking is cheap, easy to manage, and the solution for most non-edge cases.
Passive RFID is often used in situations where items are going out for sale or otherwise likely to not be returned, due to the extremely low cost of the tags. Although the readers are more expensive, the chips themselves cost only a few cents (which is why this is the preferred technology for modern hotel keys). Active RFID requires less reader technology, but the chips or tags are much more expensive. It is generally only used on large and important assets. Passive RFID also requires that the asset be actively scanned. For example, an employee with a passive RFID security card will have to pass it over a reader, whilst one with an active card should just be able to walk in the door. Passive RFID is thus of limited use for asset tracking, although there are cases in which it is advisable. Active RFID tends to be one of the more expensive solutions due to the cost of readers, and the cost tends to limit the number and location of readers, which can result in lost time as an employee waits for one to be available. However, RFID has been around a long time and many companies have already invested in this infrastructure.
Ultra-Wideband is a lot more expensive than Bluetooth but offers a really high level of precision. For most use cases, it is more precise than is technically needed. This less familiar technology uses a large frequency signal with at least a 500MHz bandwidth, and special readers. The broadcast is kept very low powered so as not to interfere with other uses (some wi-fi solutions now go into this frequency-range, because it allows for higher bandwidth). Ultra-wideband can detect assets to within a couple of meters, which is better than other solutions. However, it seems likely that ultra-wideband will eventually take over a lot of wi-fi functionality, which might result in interference and bandwidth issues if it is also being used for asset tracking.
Narrowband Internet of Things Technology works with sending and receiving data and is basically a way for devices to talk to each other. It works on a limited bandwidth that is generally compatible with 4G (that is to say with standard phones). NBIoT does offer a long battery life, and it connects directly to the cell network. This means that there’s no dependency on gateway devices and, like Bluetooth, tags can be read using a phone. However, the tags are more expensive. The technology is often useful if you have a lot of “smart” assets and are primarily interested in secure IoT asset tracking to help keep an IoT system running smoothly, as this generally does not require separate tags to be bought and attached to assets.
Wi-Fi used to be the goto technology but has not been used as much recently. There are still some use cases in which wi-fi asset tracking may be useful. Most particularly, wi-fi tracking uses existing WLAN infrastructure, meaning that the company does not need to invest heavily in beacons, etc. However, wi-fi is generally not as efficient as newer technologies and is mentioned here primarily because of its long history. There are still some use cases in which Wi-Fi tracking may be useful, but most companies should be considering moving on, especially as wi-fi bandwidth is used for so many other means of communication.
ZigBee is a proprietary low-power wireless mesh network standard that is sometimes used for asset tracking. Most of the use cases with ZigBee are smart home and building uses, where there is a relatively high need for bandwidth and heavy communication. However, ZigBee is cheaper than extending a wi-fi network and can operate over multiple frequencies, allowing you to run the system on a frequency that is not being used. ZigBee can support up to 65,000 devices, so it is certainly usable as an asset tracking solution. It also uses less power than Bluetooth, but the tradeoff is an even shorter range, only 40 feet; it requires a line of sight because of the high frequencies used. ZigBee also requires devices and tags that are compatible with the network protocol.
Why Use Bluetooth for Asset Tracking?
With all of these technologies, why choose Bluetooth?
There are many specific pros that BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) has for asset tracking. Here are some of the most obvious:
- It has the cheapest tags other than passive RFID. (Active RFID tags are still a little bit more expensive). The integrated circuits cost only $2, allowing manufacturers to make tags cheaply. Tags can be waterproof, special shapes, etc, and while this is also true of active RFID, the lower cost makes it easier to buy the tag types you need within your budget.
- The tags are very power-efficient, resulting in a long battery life. Batteries only have to be replaced every one to two years, as opposed to every few months for other technologies. This saves a lot of time. The batteries can also be recycled.
- You don’t have to pay the standard $1-5k price tag for specialist active RFID readers. Because RFID is not low energy, the hardware needed to pick it up is more expensive. BLE tag readers cost less than $100. This either saves a lot of money or allows you to issue more readers to more employees, resulting in more convenience and easier compliance.
- Bluetooth is the most popular standard for wireless communication. Devices such as phones are equipped with Bluetooth, allowing phones to be used as BLE tag readers. This is even cheaper than buying cheap readers, as most of your employees will already have phones.
- Bluetooth accuracy depends on the number of beacons you have installed. This means that you can install extra beacons in areas where high granularity is important, and save money by reducing the number in places where you do not need that level of precision, such as the loading dock. This makes for a flexible system that can cover a range of precision needs, unlike UWB, which gives that level of precision and cost everywhere.
- Beacons are also relatively low cost and have a range of about 100 ft (the range on BLE is fairly limited, which is a tradeoff for the longer battery life).
- BLE can be directly connected to the cell network rather than using bandwidth on the Enterprise network. This also improves security by reducing the number of IoT items connected to the network. Given some high profile botnet type hacks, this is generally a good idea.
What is the Best Technology for Asset Tracking?
For most use cases, Bluetooth is the best technology for asset tracking. However, other solutions including active RFID and UWB definitely have their place. The other element to the best asset tracking solution is the software. You need a solution which:
- Allow you to connect all of your physical assets, regardless of their location.
- Create workflows that connect the physical to the digital, track assets and cross-reference them to tasks.
- Is compatible with older systems you might be using, including barcode and QR code readers. While moving on from these is important for integration, many companies have assets that have never been tagged. In some cases, they may have been overlooked, whilst for rarely-used assets, it might not be worth tagging them.
- Is designed for your specific use case.
While Bluetooth is often best, a good provider will advise you on the best solution for your specific use case and needs. Whatever your pain points are, a good provider will guide you through them and help you choose the best technology for asset tracking that fits your needs.
Kontakt.io provides a complete asset tracking solution. We provide Bluetooth tags and gateways, as well as third party access points to ensure compatibility with your existing infrastructure. Our AI platform, Simon, optimizes asset tracking and helps automate things as much as possible to reduce time spent and human error. Book a demo with Simon AI for asset tracking now, and talk to us about your specific asset tracking needs.