By Rajat Ratra
Head - IoT and Research & Development Practice

There is a plethora of technology options available today when it comes to asset tracking. Starting from the very basic and most popular barcode (1D or QR), going up-to long range technologies like LoRAWAN, UWB, GPS etc. Important here is to consider the right mix of technologies depending on the objective and not by what is available around.

Getting started with asset identification and tracking journey. Let’s look at the first few to-dos.

  1. Defining the objectives correctly
  2. Evaluating the right technology options
  3. Appropriating the right budgets

 

Lot of times the overwhelming options available confuse and derail the overall purpose. Honestly, if cheapest solution is the criterion, then look no further and stick to the basics i.e., barcode self-adhesive identification labels for the assets. Yes, of-course the choice of label material, adhesive to be used, substrate material, environment of deployment etc. will play its part even while considering barcodes. While this may look simpleto implement but has challenges when it comes to tracking, so that’s where the need of next gen wireless technologies come in.

The nearest complementing technology available along with barcode in wireless category is passive RFID. And then there are more advanced technologies like IoT, which provide more features and can be chosen based on use case specific requirements.

If you want the features and cost of RFID tags, anIoT 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. Tracking has two aspects,

  1. Checking the physical presence / existence
  2. Identifying the location

While evaluating the right technology platform, do consider the purpose for each of them. Identification or tagging method is another most critical factor in the whole equation of tracking. So,we must start with a tagging option which ensures that the assetsare appropriately tagged which withstand the life of the assets. Then look at how it’s going to read/track the physical presence of it. Is it manual or automatic or semi-automatic! And lastly, the location followed by accuracy.

Any wireless technology that we choose will have an infrastructure requirement, so it must be kept in mind as a selection criterion as it may have serious implications on TCO of a solution.

Things To Consider

  • Passive RFID tags are inexpensive, the readers are relatively
  • To work properly, passive RFID readers radiate a great deal of energy to pick up tag signals.
  • And if you’re tracking requirements are fine with chokepoint detection methodology, you will need a lot of them for asset location tracking (depending how many tracking locations you want to track the asset at).

Benefits Of Passive RFID

  • From factor – Passive RFID tags are available off the shelf in tens or form factor options starting from self-adhesive labels
  • Cost – Self-adhesive labels are the most inexpensive ones and cost only a few $ cents (typically under 0.1 for reasonable volumes). While the hard and specialty form factor tags can run in few $, depending on what is the environment of use.
  • Passive RFID tags essentially last forever as they don’t need a battery.
  • Choice – Basis the application requirement, you can choose a long to mid to a small range tag.
  • Security – Options to choose the right tag type to cater to security requirements of the applications. NFC vs HF Mifare vs UHF Gen2v2

Passive RFID is one of the most popular technology now-a-days around us, in libraries, retail stores, on vehicle windshields etc. Passive RFID enables choke point tracking to accomplish both physical presence as well as location. Real time location tracking using passive RFID is an expensive option.

For real time tracking long range wireless tags such as BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy), LoRA. Zigbee and other technologies are available to choose. Citing an example where, the solution requires a room-level or 3–5-meter accuracy for asset tracking, Bluetooth(BLE) tags is the best option.

Let’s walk through the benefits and considerations of BLE now.

Bluetooth Low Energy Technology (can simply be termed as Active RFID)

BLE (or active RFID) systems operate by a tag “beaconing,” or sending out transmission, to a reader, and then transmitting that location to the receiving server mostly on the cloud. As it is in the category of active tags, hence uses a battery. iBeacons are a type of active RFID that use BLE.

Things To Consider

  • Location accuracy of active RFID is only as granular as the number of readers you have, so, many readers are necessary for a high level of accuracy. Room level accuracy is a great explanation for this technology deployment.
  • This is not a pinpoint accuracy technology like what ultrawide band.
  • Compared to passive RFID, the battery life of BLE systems is dependent on the beaconing rate/interval. Typically, a 1.5-2 year battery life for a BLE tag is considered reasonable.
  • It works like our personal Bluetooth devices and may face some interference in highly noisy environments.

Benefits Of BLE

  • Form factor – a lot of off the shelf factor options are available.
  • Cost – Reasonable, price starts from 8-10$ a pc and may go upto a 100$ for a specialty form factor.
  • Can work standalone with minimal IT integration (depending on the solution). Smart phone enables a lot of use cases with BLE.
  • Quite a reasonable RTLS option.
  • Scale as you go, deploy BLE gateways or readers in areas of prime interest and start tracking. As more granularity is required, add more gateways, and make the solution more accurate and real time.

Use Cases: BLE Vs. RFID

Once you understand the BLE vs. RFID differences, you likely understand which solution is best for your use case.

Passive RFID

  • If low-cost tags are extremely important, passive RFID will always win. You’re never going to make a BLE tag for less than $2, whereas passive tags can cost pennies in high volume.
  • If you want to track assets as they move through a chokepoint, passive RFID is ideal. It acts as a point-of-presence scan in several situations. For example, shipping organizations may use RFID tags to make scanning both faster and easier through a conveyer belt. Airlines may put RFID stickers into luggage tags, so passenger bags don’t need to be scanned with a barcode reader.
  • If you want to gain discreet point-of-retail tracking capabilities, passive RTLS may work well for you. Many OEMs will pay retailers to place RFID scanners on their product shelf, so they know exactly how many of their widgets are sold.

BLE (Active RFID)

  • If your goal is to make compliance easier and more streamlined, BLE may be your best bet. For instance, you can use an active RFID system to track and report equipment that is shipped to or from your building for reporting purposes.
  • If you need to get a handle on quality control, BLE is ideal. You can use an active Bluetooth-based RFID system to, say, track pallets to ensure all your fresh produce leaves the plant on schedule.
  • If you want to monitor visitors or employees in a shop floor or office or warehouse, look into a BLE system. You can integrate active RFID into an ID or visitor badge and help mitigate any potentially harmful or hazardous situations

Summary

Both technologies offer great value/advantage in the deployment use cases, so must be taken on their merit of the purpose and budgets. They can co-exist, many use cases where assets are mobile and need tracking at different levels in different zones or areas of use, both technologies come together to offer the best in class offering to your asset tracking requirement.

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