Real Time Location System [RTLS] Study: How do RFID and BLE differ?

BLE and RFID RTLS continues to be a growing topic, and it’s incredibly difficult to fit it everything you need to know in one post. That’s why we’ve compiled a 32-page RTLS whitepaper. We went in depth on the capabilities of BLE for a real-time location system, compared costs, broke down types of use cases, and examined required hardware. Find the whitepaper here.

Active RFID companies (like Zebra Systems or CenTrak) have been helping businesses track assets for years, and the technology is still going strong. From patient safety solutions to asset tracking in manufacturing, RFID has been monumentally important. The question, now, is: how valuable will it be in the future?

RFID will never be completely replaced in the real time location systems market as it has some very strong use cases. But is RFID RTLS right for everyone or every use case?

Comparing RTLS InfrastructureBluetooth, RFID, and competing technologie

Click here to download RTLS guide.

Real Time Location System (RTLS): The Basics and Beyond

RTLS is a technology solution used to automatically identify or track assets in an area in real time. Whether it’s people, packages, or large machinery, a real time locating system can tell managers the location of tagged pieces. This generally works by attaching a tag to an item. While these move, the tag sends transmissions to fixed receivers in the space. Together, receivers and transmissions data illuminate the physical location of the tag and corresponding item at that moment.
The digital and real-time version of the location and all associated assets lives in an RTLS software. It’s the software (platform) that makes the location data meaningful, translating it into interactive maps, locating tools, heat maps, dashboards, reports, and other features, depending on a solution provider.

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RTLS in different verticals

From tracking medical devices in hospitals to charting workers in exposed environments, RTLS offers massive opportunities to almost every sector. By knowing where assets are located, processes can be streamlined, generating valuable data and letting employees focus on activities that actively bring value to the organization.

How do we use RTLS?

While the industries in which assets are often tracked vary, the principals behind them remain largely the same. Here are some common use cases:

  • Manufacturing: Understand assembly line logistics or track machines.
  • Healthcare: Increase equipment usage, enable quick access to patient files, improve staff allocation and security.
  • Logistic and transport: Decrease errors in asset movement, optimize storage and storing processes.
  • Educators: Track books, technical equipment, and attendance.
  • Office managers: Optimize desk usage, understand employee movements, and verify attendance.
  • Law enforcement: Track officer’s equipment, prevent theft, and ensure safety.

As you can imagine, these use cases can also be practical in any given vertical or field. Aerospace, museums, conferences—they all have a number of possibilities when it comes to a tracking system.

Active vs. passive technology

The RFID RTLS market (and the RTLS market as a whole) has grown significantly in recent years and is expected to continue growing at a CAGR of nearly 43% until 2021. Still, there is an amount of confusion around the concept.

RTLS describes the actual Real Time Location System, a solution that can tell users where a tagged asset is located. There are several technologies used to accomplish this. Some systems use WiFi, some ZigBee, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), or active RFID. RFID simply means Radio Frequency Identification and refers to a small electronic device that consist of a chip and antenna. However, note that not every RFID solution relates to real time locating systems.

Trouble choosing between WiFi, ZigBee, and BLE? Download our RTLS technology guide.


Distinguishing between active and passive

RFID appeared in the 1940s and quickly grew to passively track objects. These passive RFID tags continue to be incredibly affordable, costing as little as 10 cents. They are also easy to produce and dispose of.

While passive RFID is ultra cheap, it’s active RFID that offers extensive capabilities in asset tracking. These use small battery-powered tags to broadcast their signal. They provide a much farther reach than passive tags. In short, passive tags must wait for external energy to power them while active RFID is able to broadcast on its own. This means their optimal use cases are almost entirely different. For most modern companies looking into a real time location system, they’ll be turning to something active.
Furthermore, passive RFID cannot offer overarching real-time information. It only functions when brought in extremely close proximity to a reader. For example, passive RFID employee access cards typically function at some 125 khz, having a read range of 1-10cm.

Client-based solutions like passive RFID can tell you if or when a tagged asset passed through a certain area–but what if you want real time location data? Managers in a warehouse or a health care system can find immense benefit in active data. For people tracking, such as that used in patient safety solutions, passive data can only go so far, and in emergency situations professionals will want to know where a patient is actively located—not where they passed through thirty minutes earlier. Active RFID and Bluetooth, on the other hand, can be integrated into an app or leveraged to pass data onto a server and provide the required information.

There are several levels to active RFID as well. Ultra-Wideband, ZigBee, and Bluetooth all use similar practices and frequencies. Still, Bluetooth is generally viewed as different from other active solutions as it uses different technology and offers different results.

If you want to drive real business outcomes with a location solution, you need more than just RTLS. Discover how Simon, our next-generation IoT platform combines RTLS, IoT, and workflows to help you understand, digitize, and optimize physical workflows.
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Bluetooth-powered real-time location systems

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When used in RTLS, BLE utilizes so-called Bluetooth Low Energy tags, small devices that work by sending out a signal that can be picked up by other Bluetooth devices and indicate distance between a tag and a reader. These systems can achieve up to 3m accuracy. More importantly, due to the widespread adaptation of the Bluetooth standard, BLE solutions are cheaper and easier to integrate into other systems and everyday devices than alternative solutions. In fact, nearly all phones are already equipped with the technology. The first major difference between BLE and RFID RTLS becomes obvious:
For use cases where smartphones and devices can be used as part of the real-time location system, Bluetooth greatly simplifies every step of the process.

The Hardware

The RTLS market is filled with different kinds of standards and each has its own unique hardware. While the promise behind these real-time location systems is almost the same, the hardware is drastically different—as well as the associated price tags.
Both BLE and Active RFID systems use tags to send out a signal to readers every few seconds. These signals can be analyzed to determine the (more or less) exact location of the tags. Both systems also operate at room level, meaning they are optimal for Zonal Tracking. However, while passive RFID tags are notoriously cheap, active RFID tags and readers are—quite simply—not.
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The popular Fx9500 Fixed RFID Reader from Zebra costs some $1,500. And it’s not even close to the most expensive reader on the market. While Active RFID readers commonly cost between $1,000 and $5,000, the corresponding Bluetooth gateway can cost less than $100.
It’s estimated that the total first-year costs for a 1000-unit active RFID real time location system, including software and hardware, can easily reach up to $39,100. The cost of implementing that same system with Bluetooth beacons hovers around $10,890.

How can BLE be so much cheaper?

One reason is that BLE has a far longer reach. RFID has a very short range, meaning, in order to cover a big area with RFID, you have to have a lot of hardware. Bluetooth can reach 50 to 70 meters and RFID about 2.

The software

WiFi tags, Bluetooth® LE beacons, and readers all describe largely the hardware aspect of a location system. However, the hardware and the data transmitted from a tag to a reader is nothing without the software.

Software translates this data into readable, actionable information. Depending on the provider and solution, these programs can create heat maps, visualizations, or other kinds of interactive data. These user-friendly interfaces often leverage floorplans to display and relate information. Here, users can look for specific tags or assets, group assets by type, run diagnostics, generate reports, or analyze data. In some scenarios, users can also set up workflows, triggered by actions that should occur when a specific parameter is met.


The future of the Real-Time Location System [RTLS]

In conclusion, the idea of passive RFID or NFC being completely replaced by Bluetooth Low Energy is rather presumptuous, completely missing the differing benefits offered by the two systems. Bluetooth won’t be erasing its competitors. For companies who need absolutely extreme granularity, UWB may continue to be a necessity. The reality, however, is that BLE RTLS is becoming increasingly common, competitive, and BLE is very nearly becoming synonymous within real-time location systems.
However, with the introduction of Bluetooth 5, and the growing popularity of beacon technology, leaders of the beacon and IoT space alike now expect Bluetooth to begin playing a larger role in the real-time location system market. Having conducted several interviews on what 2017 will mean for beacon technology, we found the single most common thread is the fact BLE will become increasingly common and central in asset tracking solutions. From ABI Research to Bluetooth SIG, movers are agreeing that 2017 means big wins for beacons in RTLS.

Patrick Connolly, Principal Analyst at ABI Research
“The area of most excitement is industrial where low-cost, high accuracy beacons can be a fraction of the cost of other RTLS/asset tracking solutions. 2017 will be the year of proving that these technologies can scale.”

Chuck Sabin, Director of Business Strategy at Bluetooth SIG
“In 2017, we’ll start to see the beginning of the beacon revolution, which will eventually change the way we live our everyday lives. Corporate/Industrial and personal/asset tracking are set to lead the way in beacon technology.”

Stephen Statler, Author of Beacon Technologies
“Asset Tracking has been one of the hottest markets for beacons and will get hotter still in 2017.”


RTLS in healthcare: is it changing?

Hospital assets are expensive. In fact, the cost per bed has risen 90% in the past 15 years to $3,144, and keeping track of this equipment is a big job. Hospitals are big, have a huge amount of equipment, and often a lot of employees. It’s very easy for expensive tools to end up misplaced or left in disuse. Hospitals will even purchase between 10 and 20% more equipment than necessary just so staff will be more likely to find it. Establishing a proper RTLS in healthcare settings is crucial to making sure patients get the treatment they need and that assets are properly tracked and utilized.
RFID has become increasingly common for RTLS in healthcare; however, the Bluetooth real-time location system is undoubtedly on the rise. The increasing number of solutions and rapid development of new healthcare-specific tag form factors indicates that BLE could turn existing RTLS in healthcare into something more automated and futuristic. As major US hospitals begin moving forward with POCs, will more be joining later this year?

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Real Time Location Systems lingo: terminology index

  • Associating: A method of describing a tag’s location using the tag’s proximity to other tags.
  • Antenna: Passive and high-frequency tags use an antenna to send and receive data. Due to the lack of battery in passive tags, an antenna is required to power the device.
  • Bluetooth Low Energy: A highly energy efficient protocol first introduced in 2010. It allows devices to run for several years on tiny coin-cell operated batteries. Due largely to the simplicity of the technology, Bluetooth-based beacons can be created quickly and for a lower cost than competitors.
  • Chip: A rice-sized RFID unit that can be implanted into assets or even animals.
  • Far-field communication: Refers to when an RFID tag is one full wavelength outside of the related reader. These systems imply a long read range (in comparison to near-field communication-based systems). Here, the tag receives the energy transmitted.
  • Gateway: A device that receives data from Bluetooth Low Energy tags (like beacons) and sends it to the cloud for analysis or integration into another system.
  • High frequency RFID (HF): These tags operate between 3 MHz and 30 MHz. The frequency relates directly to, and in a way describes, the read range. High-frequency systems imply longer read ranges, working at a distance between 10 cm and 1 meter.
  • iBeacon: One protocol for beacon technology. This is the language commonly used by apps to facilitate communication between beacons and other technology.
  • Infrared RTLS: A tag emits a unique Infrared ID picked up by an Infrared reader. These highly reliable systems are also expensive to install.
  • Low frequency RFID (LF): These tags operate between 30 MHz and 300 MHz. The frequency relates directly to, and in a way describes, the read range. Low-frequency systems imply shorter read ranges, working in a distance less than 10 cm.
  • Near-field communication: Refers to when a tag is within full wavelength of the related reader. These systems imply a short read range (in comparison to far-field communication-based systems). Here, the reader antennae emit radio waves to the tag.
  • Read range: The distance (or range) from which a tag can be read by a reader.
  • Reader: A (generally) stationary connected device that can send power, data, and commands to related tags. This is a kind of access point that transfers data from RFID-equipped assets to the business’s database.
  • Tag: The device attached to assets that either broadcasts otherwise transfers its location data.
  • Trigger: A pre-defined response that should occur when a particular asset moves     in a particular way. For example, when the Gateway detects or loses sight of a particular beacon, it will send the event back to the Location Engine, triggering a given action.
  • Ultra-high frequency RFID (UHF): These tags operate between 300 MHz and 3 GHz. The frequency relates directly to, and in a way describes, the read range. High-frequency systems imply longer read ranges, working up to 12 meters.
  • Ultra wide-band RTLS (UWB): UWB systems leverage a very low energy level to power     short-range, high-bandwidth communications. These can carry large     amounts of data long distances and through several kinds of blockers.
  • WiFi RTLS: System using WiFi networks to leverage signal strength readings or     triangulation to determine asset locations. WiFi tags are able to, in part, leverage existing WiFi ecosystems, making them very popular in industries like healthcare. They act almost the same as Bluetooth beacons with one big difference: energy usage. WiFi was designed to be highly efficient and therefore uses a large amount of bandwidth. The result is more energy usage and higher associated costs.
  • ZigBee: A wireless communication standard using low-power digital radio signals for personal area networks. Has many applications largely in smart home systems.
  • 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 exact position on a particular shelf in a particular space.

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