In the retail sector it is politely referred to as ‘shrinkage’, in the hospitality industry they prefer ‘souveniring’, to the rest of us it is more commonly known as theft. Whatever you call it, it happens a lot, and not just in retail and hospitality. Things go astray, and not only because someone “forgot” to pay for an item or “accidentally” packed a bath robe at the hotel in which they were staying, but equally as a result of clerical errors, unintentional damage, or the misplacement of expensive assets in a facility that could span several square kilometers – think hospitals, industrial facilities, prisons and so on.
Misplacement is costly, but even more serious are the instances where keeping track of assets could even be a matter of life and death. One major city hospital in Sydney, Australia, took receipt of a new $70,000 portable X-ray machine that was unpacked from its crate, and then left in a corridor along with its discarded packing materials. The cleaners dutifully disposed of the packing materials – but unfortunately the X-ray machine too. Thankfully it was saved from the waste room in the nick of time. On another occasion they weren’t so lucky. A mobile C-arm—an intraoperative imaging device—was left in a corridor while an operating theater was being refurbished. It also ended up in the waste room, in a skip, that was hauled away to the tip before anyone noticed. A $240,000 piece of equipment - gone. These are but two extreme examples of the countless ways, in every workplace, that equipment goes missing - whether through a deliberate act or a genuine mistake, and it’s costing a fortune.
According to a study by insurance provider Hiscox, in the U.S. alone, employee theft costs U.S. businesses in the region of $50 billion a year, with the theft of company property the third most common offence behind only billing fraud and theft of cash. Add in assets that are simply lost or go missing, and that figure could be doubled, but no one really knows because the data is too difficult to accurately compile due to the nature of the “crime”. Australian telco giant, Telstra, simply claims “billions”, and highlights the cascading business impact. “One company spent AU$750,000 [$506,000] a year on hiring equipment because their own assets were either missing or couldn’t be shared efficiently between sites,” Praveen Senadheera, an IoT Senior Specialist at Telstra, said in a statement. And with much asset tracking still performed manually, errors, he said, are compounded. “One council, for example, found that mistakes in its handwritten tracking records led to a loss of AU$800,000 [$541,000] worth of missing assets over three years.” Little wonder then that sprouting from the enormous network that is the IoT, is a new branch dubbed the “LoT” for the Location of Things.
The location of things
Defined as connected devices with the capability of monitoring and communicating their geographic location, the LoT sector is still emerging, but it’s moving rapidly. According to analyst, Research and Markets, the sector was valued at $19 billion last year, and is expected to reach $128.75 billion by 2027, growing at a remarkable Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 24.5 percent.
For those well assimilated with applications such as Google Maps and Uber, this might sound like old news. However, while the LoT may have had its genesis in GPS, they are not the same thing, and LoT technology is going places GPS (literally) can’t. While GPS, broadly speaking, can confirm the position of a ‘thing’ to within an accuracy of approximately 5 meters, put a bridge, tree, some clouds, or a building in the way and that accuracy gets fuzzy, depending on the degree of signal interference. Walk indoors, and GPS is less useful than the smoke signals of old to identify the location of either us, or our assets.
In the predigital age, tracking assets indoors was a laborious manual process, involving paper based systems and plenty of human error. Items were signed in and out, records were kept in rows upon rows of filing cabinets, and in the event something went astray it could in theory be tracked, perhaps not to its actual location but at least back to the person whose signature had last claimed responsibility for it.
RFID tags as part of an RFID asset tracking system provide another option, and while passive RFID tags—those with no internal power source—are inexpensive and widely used, what they don’t do is actively track the movement of an asset in ‘real time’.
The other drawback of passive RFID is range. A passive system may only be able to trigger on a tag between one and seven meters away depending on environmental conditions. This might be sufficient to know when an asset has passed through a ‘chokepoint’, for example left a room or a building, but the tag-reading infrastructure that would enable it to do so is expensive. Active RFID systems use battery powered RFID tags that can be used as beacons to accurately track real time location and at a much longer read range than passive tags, but they are also much more expensive and, with a battery that would require replacement anywhere between every three and five years, not always practical.
The ubiquity of Wi-Fi access points in buildings has also seen Wi-Fi based positioning systems grow in popularity. In such systems, the asset tag includes a Wi-Fi radio that relays data to multiple readily available access points that in turn can use certain parameters of the received signals to identify an asset’s location. Accuracy is between five and 15 meters, but the tags are power hungry and expensive, making the tracking of less-valuable or -critical assets unrealistic.
Better with Bluetooth
For some time, Bluetooth LE has catered for low power real time indoor positioning and item finding solutions using the protocol’s Received Signal Strength Indication (RSSI) to estimate the distance of a transmitting device from a known fix point such as a beacon or locator. Accuracy is between one and 10 meters depending on conditions. However, before the introduction of Bluetooth 5 in mid-2016, range was a drawback, demanding the installation of a relatively large number of fixed locators or beacons to ensure all tags remained in communication throughout a facility. Bluetooth 5 offered an increase in range up to four times that possible with Bluetooth 4.2 and its additional data payload ensured information beyond an asset’s approximate location could also be provided. As such, the use of Bluetooth for indoor asset proximity tracking applications has multiplied.
For example, Indian tech company WaveNet Solutions recently released a Bluetooth mesh-based asset tracking solution that enables ‘live’ monitoring of up to 65,000 assets in healthcare, manufacturing, hospitality, as well as numerous other sectors. The “Wi.” asset tracking management system employs Nordic Semiconductor-powered Bluetooth LE tags, nodes and a gateway to provide ‘live’ indoor navigation, tracking, analytics and location-based services for equipment. The system delivers business owners immediate access to automatically updated asset location information, enabling inventory management and prevention of loss or theft. In operation, the system tracks tagged assets by broadcasting their location to mesh-networked nodes. Multiple nodes are placed throughout the facility enabling them to receive the data from the tags and transmit the RSSI data along with the node ID to a central gateway. The gateway sends the location of the assets to a Cloud-based server, allowing the business owner to remotely monitor asset movement and access analytics and reports from an Internet-based dashboard.
“It is too easy for electronic devices, hospital equipment, IT assets, or machinery to easily disappear without a trace or be mistakenly overlooked,” says Sanjay Bisen, CEO and Co-founder of WaveNet Solutions. “As a business owner do you know how much your assets are costing you? Are you one of 68 percent of businesses that use inefficient manual methods, or don’t even track assets at all? The fact is nearly 55 percent of losses are due to theft or mismanagement which is costing companies a huge amount.”
Israel-based APS is another company offering a Bluetooth LE-based platform to enable real time asset tracking, for both ‘things’ and workers. Designed for construction sites where Ethernet or Wi-Fi is impractical, the employee and asset tracking system comprises wearable tags, Bluetooth mesh-networked controllers, and a gateway enabling management to keep track of employees or assets in real time, via an Internet-based dashboard, as they move about the construction site. The system has already been deployed for employee tracking inside several stations under construction as part of the new Tel Aviv Light Rail system in Israel but could equally be used to track valuable equipment as it moves about a construction site.
While Bluetooth 5 positioning systems can achieve meter level accuracy when determining the physical location of an object, the introduction of Bluetooth 5.1 Direction Finding in January 2019, improved location accuracy in two or three dimensions down to the centimeter-level. The technology uses not only RSSI but also the actual direction of a signal using ‘Angle-of-Arrival’ (AoA) and ‘Angle of Departure’ (AoD) methods to deliver pinpoint levels of precision.
“Bluetooth 5.1 Direction Finding is a very important addition to the technology,” says John Leonard, Senior Product Marketing Manager with Nordic Semiconductor. “Nordic believes it can have a similar impact for indoor situations as GPS did for outdoor positioning. Where GPS has fundamentally changed the world on a macro scale for cars, people and objects, Direction Finding will have a similar impact on the micro scale inside buildings.”
“Location services is one of the fastest growing solution areas for Bluetooth technology, and is forecasted to reach over 400 million products per year by 2022,” Mark Powell, Bluetooth SIG Executive Director, said in a statement. “This is great traction and the Bluetooth community continues to seek ways to further grow this market with technology enhancements that better address market needs, demonstrating the community’s commitment to driving innovation and enriching the technology experience of users worldwide.”
Bluetooth 5.1 Direction Finding promises to significantly extend applications designed to track assets. The technology can also enrich the consumer experience in proximity-based retail or educational applications. The powerful processors at the heart of Nordic’s SoCs are also capable of supporting inputs from numerous sensors such as accelerometers and temperature monitors. So not only will it be possible to see where an asset sits at any time it will also be possible to track how it’s handled. If damage occurs knowing where and when that happened will make it much easier to chase compensation.
But with billions of dollars of equipment going missing every year, and thousands of staff hours being lost looking for them, Real Time Location Systems (RTLS) may well be the star of the show once the latest iteration of the Bluetooth spec finds its way into commercial products. When it does, there will be nowhere left to hide.