Running a huge campus would stress me out. It seems like one of those jobs where, when you’re doing it well, nobody notices. But, when there’s a problem, whether it’s delays in serving patients or clients, security problems, or a more urgent emergency, everyone wants the campus manager to fix it and they want it fixed now.
If you manage a large campus--say, for example, a hospital system, or an airport or university--you’re going to be responsible for a lot of expensive equipment. In some cases, the tools and machines in your facility will be needed abruptly after several weeks of disuse; in others, equipment may need to be shared among staff, and needs to be transported from person to person in a timely manner. Unfortunately, any of these things have the potential to be frequently misplaced, not correctly given to the next person who needs it, or lost on your campus. Wasting time looking for misplaced equipment can cause delays, sometimes for hours on end. And, worst case scenario, equipment is lost for good, requiring thousands of dollars to replace.
Since 2006, inventors have been creating and improving asset tracking systems in order to solve this problem. Now, we’ve previously been talking about how BLE Beacons can be used to gather location data, which can then be put towards all sorts of uses. In this post, we’re going to look at asset tracking specifically.
Asset tracking involves taking chips, or tags, and attaching them to any important asset, be it equipment or personnel, you do not want to misplace. These tags are Bluetooth beacons in that they periodically broadcast BLE signals of themselves to the world tags. A beaconing tag sends out a signal to be read by other beacons or gateways. A person can use software on his or her phone or laptop to find the location of the asset.
Initially, using Wi-Fi technology was the only asset tracking option available. However, eleven years after the first asset tracking technology debuted, it’s become clear that BLE Beacons are better than Wi-Fi based asset tracking systems in four important respects.
Wi-Fi and BLE asset tracking systems are both capable of finding your equipment. But, Wi-Fi asset tracking systems are simply less accurate. The location of your ECG machine demarcated on your virtual map could be off by several meters if you’re using a Wi-Fi based system. This might not seem like a big deal, but five meters off could mean you’ve gone searching down a totally wrong hallway; once you figure out it’s not there, then you’ve got to figure out in what direction the data is off by. It’s a huge hassle in an already stressful environment.
Why does this happen? Well, Wi-Fi based asset trackers estimate the location of the asset by measuring how long it takes for the signal from the tag to reach the locating device. This estimation is based on signal strength. Unfortunately, signal strength estimates can be interfered with by signal reflections and multipath effects. According to technologist Ciarnan Connell:
“The reflection causes the radio band pulse to reverse itself and partially cancel out the original signal. This means that interference and multi-path effects will not only weaken the signal, but also damage its integrity. This will likely not damage the data payload, but it will hurt the ability to measure the start and stop of the signal.” (Connell 2015).
In short, material in interior environments can interrupt and weaken the wifi signal, causing it to be read as farther away if location is being estimated with signal strength.
Bluetooth beacon asset tracking solves this problem by having many more beacons within a building that can receive the signals communicated by the tracking tags. Thus, the location of the asset is calculated by triangulating its signal relative to multiple beacons, rather than its signal strength in relation to a single beacon.
Moreover, WiFi access points are deployed to maximise signal coverage for minimal infrastructure deployment; consequently, they are placed at locations inadequate for positioning and tracking. For example, given a large square area as depicted below, a WiFi access point will be installed in the center of the ceiling for best coverage, even though the optimal positioning performance requires a set of beacons distributed around the perimeter of the square region.
BLE Beacons has the flexibility and portability to allow good signal geometries for asset tracking to be provided as needed.
In addition, BLE beacons take measurements every few meters, then record and save these measurements in a database, giving the location software more data about previous locations in order to improve its current reading on any given asset. In this way, BLE Beacons can save time and stress by locating your assets more precisely; many BLE asset tracking programs are accurate within one meter.
- Ease of Use
Setting up wif-fi based asset tracking systems, and then navigating the accompanying software, can be complicated. But, setting up Bluetooth systems is much easier.
When Apple wanted to integrate a location data gathering system into the new iPhones, the company known for simplicity chose Bluetooth technology over wi-fi based technology. Bluetooth technology is designed to be shorter-range than wi-fi, and it is predominantly concerned with connections between personal devices, whether those are beacons, phones, smart tvs, or other objects that emit radio signals on that frequency.
According to Link Labs’ Chief Technology Officer Brian Ray, “[Bluetooth] RTLS systems connect to the cloud through a central access point and can be deployed with little to no involvement from the IT team…[whereas] WiFi-based RTLS rides on top of your IT structure, so your IT team will have to be heavily involved with getting it up and running.” (Ray 2017)
Bluetooth technology allows BLE devices in proximity to one another to connect almost instantaneously. It is also compatible with Android technology, and locations can be observed with or without an app.
- More Energy Efficient
Bluetooth hardware is the most energy efficient wireless radio system on the market. Transmitting data via Bluetooth signals uses as little as 3% of the power it takes to transmit data via Wi-Fi signals. This is why Bluetooth technology is synonymous with BLE: Bluetooth Low Energy.
The energy efficiency of BLE technology solves the problem of tags burning through battery packs at a frustratingly high rate, a frequent problem when WiFi-based asset tracking was first introduced to the market ten years ago.
Energy efficiency is also an important pro in the comparison list for any environmentally conscious consumer. Lower energy technology reduces your campus’s energy consumption overall, which means a smaller ecological footprint.
- Lower Price Point
This one is pretty straightforward. While BLE asset tracking systems may require more beacons total in order to maximize accuracy, both the median price points and range of costs to install a BLE asset tracking system are considerably lower than the cost of setting up a Wi-Fi based system. (Source: Ray 2017).
Combine the lower price of individual beacons and tags with the savings due to increased energy efficiency, and choosing BLE asset tracking becomes a no-brainer for your organizational goals.
Asset tracking has never been more cost efficient or easier
Ultimately, asset tracking is a huge benefit to anyone managing a campus, manufacturing, or corporate environment. But, choosing the wrong technology can end up putting a dent in your accuracy, your time, your energy, and your budget. If I were running a campus, I’d definitely want to make sure I had the right tech for a job that, if done well, would make my job so much easier.