As the keeping track of expanding asset inventories gets complicated, many growing organizations decide to abandon traditional spreadsheet-based or pen and paper methods of locating equipment, products, or devices. However, the search for advanced and more efficient tech alternatives is often fraught with confusion and disappointment as these companies consider a broad spectrum of GPS tracking systems, each of which has unique technical capabilities and limitations.
We've had many curious customers come to us with questions about the range, deployment, power, cost, size, and other functional/financial aspects of the different GPS tracking solutions available for purchase today. That's why, in this article, we provide much-sought explanations regarding the shortcomings, strengths, applications, and functionalities of the various asset-tracking technologies to help customers make informed choices.
Let's take a look at 4 GPS-enabled/linked systems, namely:
- QR Codes
- Passive RFID/NFC, Active RFID
- Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)
- SMS/GSM Real-Time GPS
Debunking the Myths About RFID
With all the marketing hype around radio frequency identification (RFID), it's easy to see why many customers get under the impression that this technology supports low-cost, real-time, GPS asset tracking. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially when it comes to practical applications! For starters, the technology cannot track or provide the geographical position or geospatial data of moving equipment, products, or parts.
You'd typically deploy RFID tracking within controlled indoor spaces. In that case, strategically positioned interrogators triangulate and localize RFID tags, helping locate tagged items.
However, RFID tracking technology can cost up to $250, 000 or more, which may be beyond the means of a midsize enterprise. With a single RFID reader costing as much $3,000, you may find it unsustainably costly to use the technology to track all your assets.
Larger organizations with the necessary financial muscle may install, apply, and maintain such a tracking system within expansive warehouses.
Reviewing Passive and Active RFID /Near Field Communication (NFC) for Asset Tracking
Contrary to a common misconception, neither RFID nor NFC trackers provide real-time geospatial data. The technology does not tap into the satellite-linked Global Position System (GPS), and it cannot supply continuous and precise geographical data on RFID/NFC-tagged items. This fact explains the technology's limited range.
The Science Behind Active and Passive RFID Trackers
RFID is an electronic triangulation system that utilizes three critical elements to identify, locate, and store information about individual or groups of items, such as products, equipment, or parts, within confined indoor spaces. It comprises RFID tags, which have microchips that carry an item's information or a serial number that matches a database record.
The system includes scanners or readers that communicate with the tags through radio signaling. The third component is a database that may store asset information as well as RFID tag responses received via the scanners.
Active RFID tags use a dedicated power source (such as a battery), and they're able to transmit radio signals without interruption. With passive tags, scanners supply the power in the form of electromagnetic waves.
Both active and passive RFID tags can be used to track the movement of items in restricted environments, such as shipping operations or warehouses. In these applications, the systems can tell the real-time location of the tagged items. But the technology is expensive compared to available alternatives. Additionally, RFID radio signals have a limited range, and they can't reach tags deployed outside of controlled spaces.
What About NFC Tags?
The concept of radio-frequency identification forms the basis of NFC asset tagging. The system comprises a transmitting device and a signal receiver.
NFC tags carry passive data, but they lack processing capabilities. They're able to transmit information using power drawn from readers. Apple Pay uses this technology.
You can use NFC tags to track products in your store. When utilized as an anti-theft solution in a brick and mortar retail store, the system monitors the movement of merchandise through the exit. It sets off an alarm if it detects a shoplifted item.
Smartphone Support for NFC/RFID Tag Reading
So far, devices on the latest versions of Android and iOS can detect NFC tags, and they can decode transmissions containing NDEF data. That explains the developer community's growing interest in building mobile apps that tap into NFC-enabled smartphones to solve a wide array of consumer and commercial needs.
For example, two NFC-enabled smartphones or devices can communicate with each other and share information in a peer-to-peer network. Applications can exploit the capability to enable users to get things done swiftly, such as exchange media files, make mobile payments, or use their smart mobile devices as contactless transport cards. At GoCodes, we are looking into building NFC tag reading capabilities into our mobile apps.
Mobile Add-Ons for True, Enhanced RFID scanning
Smartphones can function as actual RFID readers, attached to special third-party hardware. Such an enhancement enables Android and iOS devices to scan RFID tags from a distance. Tracking assets this way may be cheaper than using traditional, dedicated RFID tagging systems in some cases.
However, organizations trying to save money by adopting a BYOD policy may not like the idea of buying each user a dedicated smartphone for RFID tagging. It may not always be the cheapest option, taking into account the cost of mobile RFID add-ons, smartphones, and data.
A typical RFID device you can attach to a smartphone is the CipherLab 1861, priced at around $561. A complete set could cost up to $1,500.
The Infinea X RFID/barcode reader for iPhone is another alternative. It costs roughly $500.
QR Codes and Geospatial Asset Tracking
A quick response (QR) code is a type of 2D barcode with coded information. There are tab or smartphone apps built to decipher the black and white, pixel-like, "secret" codes in seconds. Initially developed for the automotive industry, QR codes have had many practical applications in consumer marketing over the years. They have featured in magazines and ads, and people would scan them with smartphones to decode links to digital resources, such as maps or websites, or to read email addresses, phone numbers, or messages.
Today, organizations are sticking QR codes onto assets to help identify and locate them. The technology can be used to track the status of stationary equipment whose location is already known.
A significant drawback of QR codes is that they do not have built-in GPS tracking capabilities. However, GPS-enabled QR code readers, such as smartphones, make it possible to track a mobile or fixed asset along with its geospatial information. It makes sense because the QR code-tagged asset and the GPS-integrated reader are in the same location at the same time. That's the logic behind GoCodes GPS-enabled asset tracking innovation, which the USPTO granted a patent in 2015.
QR code tagging has many unique benefits. Compared with spreadsheet software, it's inexpensive and easy to deploy as part of an inventory and asset tracking system. The technology boasts a broad spectrum of industrial applications, including collecting data and tracking shop floor assemblies in manufacturing, monitoring the movement of construction work tools and materials on site and in warehouses, and tracking system/equipment/part inventories for maintenance and operational continuity purposes.
Nonetheless, the system does not give the real-time asset position or coordinates. A practical workaround entails performing multiple QR codes scans automatically at regular intervals using a GPS-enabled device. Doing that enables the tracking system to provide near real-time visibility into tagged asset geospatial data over time. If equipment moves after a scan, for example, the next quick check reveals where it is at the time.
Tracking Assets With Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)
Traditionally, Bluetooth-enabled and connected devices near each other can exchange files, such as mobile apps, documents, and media, wirelessly. Better yet, a phone can transmit sound to a paired Bluetooth headset, which enables the user to listen to music, cordlessly.
However, Bluetooth Low Energy beacons are used to track and identify nearby assets. They can also transmit data to or receive requests from Bluetooth-enabled devices. In a typical equipment-tracking architecture, BLE receivers mounted on immobile fixtures scan an area for BLE-tagged assets. These assets transmit data containing unique IDs for identification. In turn, BLE receivers send detected asset identity and location information to a smartphone or cloud-based app.
BLE asset tracking has several benefits, including:
- Ability to monitor thousands of assets
- Capability for 2D positioning using multiple BLE receivers
- Many applications, multi-industry support
The technology has some flaws too, such as:
- Limited tracking range (about 30 feet max)
- Relies on battery power
That said, it's still possible to expand the BLE tracking range to cover thousands of assets in separate locations, in real time. A crowdsourced mobile-tagging system can help with that objective. In that case, thousands of users let their virtually networked smartphones send device geospatial data to the cloud, automatically. Then, a cloud-based application works out the location of asset tags. It's similar to how to Google tracks and transmits traffic data in real time to motorists.
GSM/SMS Asset Tracking With Cellular Networks
Tracking assets with SMS/GPS entails leveraging satellite technology and GSM/cellular networks. The system can accurately track large moving objects (like vehicles) in real time. Here, the role of GPS is to provide geospatial information (including coordinates), which is transmitted to the user via a GSM data network. The user can view the location of the asset being tracked in real time on the screen of a device with Google Maps or a similar app.
GSM/SMS/GPS asset tracking systems come in various configurations. However, a typical architecture includes these primary components:
- A mobile unit (location device) with a GPS module, GSM modem, and microcontroller
- A base station with a modem and display device
The mobile unit is attached to the asset (such as a vehicle) to track it real time. The GPS modem tracks and captures asset location information, while the GSM modem sends the geospatial data in SMS form to the base station modem.
The base station has an application that decodes the SMS and preserves the asset location information in a database. Google Maps or a similar app displays the info in real time.
With the GSM/SMS/GPS technology, you can tell your car's location on demand using your mobile phone. The mobile unit GSM modem has a SIM whose number you can dial to receive an SMS indicating where your vehicle is at any single time.
One of the main benefits of GSM/SMS/GPS asset tracking is that it's exceptionally accurate, and it provides real-time geospatial information. Also, Google Maps presents asset location information via high-resolution screens. The system has unlimited range, and it can track mobile assets to virtually any location with a cellular network.
The system's cons include:
- It uses power-intensive GSM radio transmitters, which limit its scope of application. However, the technology is ideal for tracking automobiles or heavy equipment with sustainable power supply onboard.
- It's expensive. A single unit may cost $100 or more, and monthly cellular network fees may reach $30 or more. You also have to pay for the GPS/SMS asset tracking software.
- A typical location device is too big to attach to small electronic equipment. The smallest unit is roughly the same size as a simple feature handset.
GPS-Enabled/Associated Asset Tracking Technologies: A Recap of the Facts
Here are the key takeaways:
- Active RFID tags are small tracking devices without GPS capabilities. They have a 100-foot range, and they can track items in real-time, but only within restricted spaces. An entire system can cost up to $250,000, with each scanner priced at $3,000 or more, and a high-quality tag costing roughly $100.
- Passive RFID/NFC tags are tiny devices with neither GPS nor real-time reporting capabilities. They have a 3-inch range. They're inexpensive, with each tag costing less than $10, and each scanner priced under $3,000.
- Bluetooth Low Energy technology is relatively cheaper, with a BLE tag costing roughly $25. It has a 30-foot range, which can expand with a crowdsourced mobile phone network. It provides real-time asset location information.
- GSM/SMS/GPS has real-time, GPS asset tracking capabilities, and it boasts unlimited range. It's expensive, seeing as a single unit costs $100 or more. There are recurrent software costs and cell phone service fees too.
- QR codes are small, low-cost asset tracking solutions. The tech boasts unlimited range, and it costs less than $1 per item. It does not provide real-time location information.
In a nutshell, consider the factors below when selecting your asset-tracking solution:
- Intended application (the assets you're tracking)
- Your budget
- Operation/infrastructural specifications
- GPS capabilities
- Real-time reporting
- Size of the equipment
- Power source
Technology Comparison Table
Looking for a quick comparison summary, here’s a quick table we put together:
Technology Real-Time? Range Power Source Size Cost per Item QR Codes No Unlimited None Very Small Very Low (<$1) Passive RFID/NFC No 3 inches None Very Small Low (<$10). Scanners cost ~$3,000 each Active RFID Yes* 100 feet Required Small High ($100). Scanner cost ~$3,000 each Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) Yes 30 feet Required Small Low ($25) GSM/SMS/GPRSReal-TIme Yes Unlimited Required Large Very High ($100 one-time +$20/month)
Tracking Technology Application Guide
Based on the different capability and price points some common usage patterns emerge for these GPS tracking technologies. Here’s a summary:
Technology &Application Asset Tracking Warehouse Inventory Fleet Tracking Consumer Retail QR Codes X X X Passive RFID X X X X Active RFID X X Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) X X GSM/SMS/GPRSReal-Time Tracking X X
Looking for more information. Try this short article: Learn the Basics of GPS Tracking Using QR Codes, RFID, and Bluetooth Low Energy