Comparing RFID and Bluetooth Tags

Comparing RFID and Bluetooth Tags

New solutions using Bluetooth Tags claim to be far cheaper than their Active RFID counterpart. Here’s why it makes sense.

Manufacturers, healthcare administrators, and all kinds of other businesses use technology to track assets. More importantly, this has been going on for decades. Those companies with a long history in the business of tracking have likely tried several different kinds of real-time location systems. These days, the most common competing technologies include active RFID, Wi-Fi, UWB, BLE, and Zigbee.

Read the comparison of RTLS infrastructure

RFID and BLE tags: what’s the difference?

Chances are, if you’re looking into asset tracking tags, you aren’t seriously considering all of the above technologies. If you want the features and cost of RFID tags, a ZigBee system probably isn’t going to fit the bill. Or if you want extreme accuracy and have a huge budget, you won’t be using RFID.

Let’s see an example. A given solution requires room-level or 3-5 meter accuracy. The business could choose to invest in a highly accurate system using Zigbee. The results would be highly granular which is ideal…for some situations. Here, extreme granularity would only mean more data to manage and sift through as well as far larger costs.

That’s why, for these solutions requiring room level or 3-5 meter accuracy, Bluetooth tags and RFID tags are among the most commonly used tools. Wi-Fi tags are also a viable solution.

Identifying and comparing costs

It’s easy to get excited by the price of an affordable tag. Here’s another place we need to differentiate: are you looking for the cheapest, flimsiest tag humanly possible or do you intend to use it in a business setting where reliability and longevity are important?

This small question will determine how much you’ll be paying for your tags. It’s worth noting that, for some RTLS systems, gateways/readers will only work with certain tags. This means, a user may not be able to buy a knockoff tag and pair it with a standard reader. You’ll have to check the specifics of your chosen tools.

If you’re looking for reliable hardware to be used with a reader, here are prices you can expect:

Wi-Fi tags
RFID tags
BLE tags
$50-120 $25-100 $15-35

 


Looking for RTLS solution that will last longer than only 24 hours? Click here to download the comparison of RTLS infrastructure.


Types of tracking tags

Apart from the basic protocol, whether your tags use Bluetooth, RFID, or something else, there are plenty of differentiating factors to keep in mind when purchasing tags for tracking purposes. For more detail on the difference between Bluetooth and RFID, check out our in-depth study here: Real Time Location System [RTLS] Study: How do RFID and BLE differ?

5¢ tags: passive vs. active technology
There are RFID tags that are far cheaper than all of the numbers listed above; however, this is because they are an entirely different technology. These ultra-cheap solutions are generally passive technologies, acting only when the tag is brought in very very close proximity to the reader. This means, for example, an employee with a passive RFID tag for access and entry will have to scan their ID. An employee using active RFID would be able to simply walk in the rough vicinity of a reader, and they would be automatically registered.

Of course, it’s difficult to say exactly how much a tag will cost you as there are several different kinds, and–more importantly–different features will mean different returns. However, one thing remains true for all: readers are also a major cost consideration.

Once you have your assets tagged, you’ll need a device to read them. Wi-Fi and RFID readers tell a powerful story: asset tracking is a solution for massive companies with massive budgets.

Here’s the big difference: active RFID readers will cost you anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000.

This a standard price tag for such readers. This is because of the inherent nature of the two technologies. Bluetooth has a very long range, yet it’s also low energy (hence, Bluetooth Low Energy). Bluetooth SIG specifically planned it to be efficient, and their future updates will likely add to its strengths and capabilities. Wi-Fi and RFID, on the other hand, weren’t made with the explicit plan to be low energy. The result is the need for more hardware and higher price tags to achieve the same result.

BLE tag readers (like Gateway hardware) cost < $100.

healthcare asset tracking iot chart

If your requirements can be met by Bluetooth tags, then it can save money. So, when we do the math, these are the results we get:

A BLE tag-based RTLS solution can cost you 1/5th the price of the Wi-Fi or RFID equivalent.

Despite this being a basic fact, every system is different. The exact cost of your RTLS will depend on what points you value. Though costs will fluctuate as technologies develop, these numbers reflect the fundamentals of each. Of course, don’t forget, Bluetooth 5 has been released and Bluetooth tags will soon be more powerful than ever before.

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How do tags differ?: shapes, features, and other factors

Tracking tags come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. For general purposes, it might not matter whether your BLE tag is long, short, or anything else. However, for some it will matter greatly. For example, some packages will be difficult to affix a tag to. Here, you may be able to use a Card Beacon 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 why tags like Tough Beacon were made.

RFID and Bluetooth tag hardware differ. Some may be:

  • Shatterproof
  • Waterproof
  • Dustproof
  • Anti-static
  • Anti-septic
  • UV-resistant

Then, there’s sensors. Accelerometers, light sensors, and other types of sensors are able to add more capabilities to your existing infrastructure. This can also add to initial cost of your infrastructure. However, by leveraging these sensors to increase energy saving initiatives, they may also help your infrastructure last months or years longer. Don’t forget about Bluetooth 5, which will be making future tags infinitely more competitive.

The Bluetooth 5 update will bring:

  • 4x the range
  • 2x the speed
  • 800% more broadcast messaging capacity

This means 800% more rich, contextual data and metadata from sources like sensors!

The Bluetooth tag and two usual suspects: iBeacon and Eddystone

There are two likely protocols-of-choice you’ll see if you’re looking into Bluetooth tags. Both are great, and you’ll have to choose which works best for you. Luckily, for asset tracking purposes, this will be much easier than marketers and others looking to reach users who may be hesitant or unready to interact with beacons.

You can read the in-depth version here: iBeacon and Eddystone.

Using Bluetooth tags for personal tracking

Lost your phone? Your keys? A new industry has popped up promising to track your valuables so you never lose them. Their primary use is for items in short- or medium-range from the owner. They work like this: the user will generally attach their personal Bluetooth tag to their asset—a computer, keyring, or even cat. These tags send out their ID information at regular intervals. The related app is able to register the location of these tags when within a distance of around 30 feet but can also reach up to 100.

These end-user trackers are generally the same as any other Bluetooth tag. The real difference is the app and how the company has decided to leverage them. It’s likely that, as these solutions become more popular, you’ll be seeing more options and greater capabilities.

Also check out an extensive overview of RTLS and their applications in manufacturing, healthcare, logistics, and workplaces.

Cost of Bluetooth tag solutions

The real cost of a tracking system implies much more than just tags. These hardware tags are merely the final node, the piece a user may see on a daily basis. Beneath these tags is a complete infrastructure constantly crunching numbers.

In all, there’s five important parts to an infrastructure structure.

  • Hardware
  • Software
  • Deployment
  • Maintenance and services
  • Infrastructure updates

Seldom will the hardware be the only tool businesses need to get started. Managers will likely have to find an existing app or platform or partner with a solution provider to create the right solution for their business. It’s up to the software-side of the solution to specify precisely what Triggers or automated actions will be applied. This includes anytime you choose to make updates. It will determine how managers will interact with or view beacons and can even affect the end costs.

Similarly, the upfront hardware cost marks only the beginning of a physical infrastructure’s lifetime. Deployment costs and any future updates (hardware or software) will also have to be considered. This is why proper planning as well as foresight can help save a lot of headache in the long run. Infrastructures should be built to support the future and future use cases of the company, not just the current goal.

Readings to follow up your Bluetooth Tag session:

Now that you’ve mastered the differences between the RFID and Bluetooth tag, you may want to consider updating your knowledge on other key beacon topics.

Check out our Beginner’s Dictionary here or learn more specifically about RTLS here.

Hannah Augur - Photo
Content writer / tech blogger / geek based in Berlin. Hannah reports on all things tech and has a medium-sized tolerance for buzzwords.

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