Real-Time Visibility for Indoor and In-Transit Asset Tracking Pt.2 (Use Cases)

In our last post about Ultra Wide Band (UWB) and Narrow Band IoT (NBIoT), we covered the basic differences between these two technologies and briefly touched on the use cases that they’re best-suited for. Now, we’re back to take a closer look at the commercial contexts where these two platforms can deliver the best insights that can be turned into business benefits. 

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As we noted last time, both UWB and NBIoT are gradually establishing themselves in various niches and it will be interesting to see how they progress and develop in the coming years. Predictions about the future status of a particular tech platform are always risky—remember the Beta video tape format or HDDVD?—but it’s worth knowing something about these wireless communication standards that, while enjoying some success now, still have far to go to catch up with the current dominant standard, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). 
As with hardware, the importance of selecting the right tools for the job applies equally to software platforms. Because of the way they operate, their technical specifications and how they’re built, both UWB and NBIoT are ideal for some use cases and a poor choice for others. So, where do UWB and NBIoT fit into market needs and digital location services?

Where UWB works well and where it doesn’t

Let’s start with the features that make UWB successful in a number of applications:

  • UWB’s extremely low energy use positions it well for large deployments—either in terms of area or units used—where manually replacing devices or batteries would be costly, both financially and in down time. Of course, energy efficiency also reduces the overall costs of ownership as well. While this is not a unique asset—energy efficiency is now the norm that all standards have to have any chance at wide adoption—UWB still manages to stand out with its very low energy use. Obviously, energy efficiency is a feature that is use case-neutral, with every deployment benefitting from it.
  • UWB offers a very high level of precision in location tracking applications. It’s accurate to a level of 10-30cm and allows for the proper measuring of heights. This kind of specificity matches well with the needs of certain warehousing operations or storage of small assets, where knowing which shelf or pallet isn’t enough and you have to know where on the shelf or pallet. UWB’s accuracy in tracking applications reduces worker search time to an absolute minimum.
  • Use cases that require a very high data-handling capacity match the performance profile of UWB well. As we stated in our previous post, this extra capacity is rarely needed for location tracking applications but it serves as a potential platform for data-intensive apps we have yet to see in the commercial or industrial space.
  • The strong signal transmitted by UWB makes it able to penetrate walls and other barriers that can weaken or block other wireless signals. This has obvious value for facilities with multiple rooms and divided spaces, like hospitals, manufacturing spaces and office environments. It also makes UWB a good alternative for deployments where, for example, BLE has proven to be ineffective because of multiple physical barriers or obstacles that make broadcasting a signal difficult.
  • An environment where the air is heavy with radio signals isn’t a problem for UWB, which doesn’t interfere with those transmissions and is not itself interfered with by them. This makes it a good choice in, for example, a stadium or densely populated settings where very significant numbers of cellular signals are concentrated. Also, in hospitals, radio frequency interference is a major issue since even a momentary lapse in operation can be a critical failure. Use cases that demand strict non-interference are well-suited for UWB.
  • Because of their low power spectral density, UWB signals are very difficult to detect by sensors outside of its own dedicated network. Think of the UWB signal as a very strong but almost unimaginably short blast of data. This makes it especially difficult to monitor, access or hijack by bad actors. Other common wireless signals, like BLE, already offer high standards of security but UWB could be a better choice for any deployment handling extremely sensitive information or requiring an extra measure of security for whatever reason. 

Like every technology, UWB has its downsides and limitations. Here are some aspects of UWB that make it a poor choice for certain kinds of location tracking applications:

  • UWB’s comparatively short effective range automatically disqualifies it from use cases covering larger areas. While a much more dense deployment of UWB sensors could compensate this lack relative lack of range, the cost of doing so would be prohibitive and wasteful given the cost of BLE solutions.
  • Depending on the configuration, UWB deployments often need clear lines of sight between sensors. This can be a challenge even in small, simple facility configurations but the complications can grow exponentially in medium and larger-sized operations. Having to create and preserve lines of sight is a cost in itself and can act as a barrier to other deployments and efficiencies otherwise possible in a more flexible environment.
  • UWB’s global ecosystem is practically non-existent when compared to technologies like Wi-Fi or BLE. This severely limits integration opportunities and easy management capabilities for anyone with a tablet or smartphone. Given the massive market penetration of these smart devices, this leaves UWB on the outside looking in. This is likely to change as more manufacturers add UWB to consumer devices, but we’re still far from that tipping point where what used to be obscure suddenly becomes must-have software. 

Moving from wide to narrow

Narrow Band Internet of Things (NBIoT) is increasingly adopted in the exploding market of smart devices and appliances connected to the internet. The overwhelming majority of these devices are small or getting smaller, meaning power and size requirements are changing. Also, they send and receive simple and usually small packets of information, things like sensor data or status updates, not huge files streamed in high-definition video. NBIoT can leverage its suitability for small bits of data transmitted periodically over time into a number of benefits:

  • IoT consumer devices like smart home appliances, fitness-based wearables and smart watches are ideal for NBIoT. They transmit only intermittently and even then they send and receive only a tiny bit of data. Status updates and sensor reading information, digitally speaking, are almost insignificantly small so data limits are never an issue.
  • IoT-connected devices can use NBIoT on a mass scale to communicate, for example, meter readings or other usage metrics, saving time and money compared to conventional meter-reading methods. Similar use cases involve air quality, temperature conditions and lighting.
  • Like UWB, NBIoT is extremely energy-efficient, maximizing battery life to its practical limits
    and minimizing the cost and hassle associated with replacements. But again, low energy use is the new norm in all wireless standards going forward. All use cases benefit from this.
  • NBIoT uses the same part of the radio spectrum used by cellular networks. This compatibility with existing mobile infrastructures means that there is a powerful, global network already in place to take NBIoT applications across entire nations. The scalability possibilities of NBIoT are unrivaled. 

And the drawbacks:

  • NBIoT’s small data capacity makes it perfect for many use cases—and totally incompatible with others. As mentioned, it’s perfect for small IoT devices that transmit intermittently with small data packets. Larger data transmissions are certain to excede NBIoT’s limits, compromising use case performance.
  • Precise real-time location tracking is a total non-starter with NBIoT unless it’s enough to know the location of a device at wide time intervals. If occasional location information is enough for the needs of a particular use case, NBTIoT can work but if you need to follow something or someone in real time, you need to look elsewhere. NBIoT is good for things that don’t move, don’t move much or for things where location is taken infrequently and over time, like wearables. 

UWB and NBIoT aren’t going to massively disrupt the Real-Time Location Services (RTLS) space any time soon. There are any number of ways they could fade away in the modern light-speed world of technological innovation. Then again, it’s entirely possible that one or both will be important parts of any conversation about location tracking applications in the very near future. Until then it’s good to know more about the technologies that are driving innovation in our field.