Location and Tracking Complete the IoT Circle

Completing the IoT Vision: Location and Tracking
C.J. Mathias / Farpoint Group
Draft 1 – 18 June 2015
I think we’re all on the same page in knowing that at least a few applications of IoT are going to be huge successes over the next few years. My money’s on healthcare, security, and energy management in particular, but a key technology that offers significant added value across all three of these – and many more – is location and tracking. Broadly defined, this is a set of technologies that can be used to determine the location of a given wireless-equipped device, and, in many cases, the ability to track this device, often in real time, as it moves. Wireless location and tracking technologies have a long history, going back to radar (which, by the way, stands for radio detection and ranging), initially developed during World War II, and which are today broadly represented in GPS (the global positioning system) and E-911 capabilities on cellular networks. But there’s more – much more, in fact.
The IoT world demands location and tracking solutions that are compact, inexpensive, reliable, proven, and suitable for indoor operations. This rules out GPS, which only works with a clear view of the sky, as well as essentially all of the E-911 technologies, given cellular’s notoriously poor in-building signal penetration. Fortunately, two key technologies have emerged to meet the in-building location and tracking opportunity, addressing all of the constraints noted above.
The first of these is good old Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi infrastructure products, sometimes aided by third-party software and/or server additions, have long had the ability to locate and track Wi-Fi devices, and often with surprisingly good accuracy (I’ve obtained special resolution down to one square meter in many cases) and with quick time-to-solution as well. Note that the Wi-Fi clients themselves are unmodified and no client-side software is required. Some Wi-Fi infrastructure products even include excellent location and tracking capabilities as a standard feature, at no additional charge!
The second, and the one generating most of the buzz these days, is beacons, based on Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology. A beacon is a low-cost, battery-powered device (many of these advertise battery life in years, by the way) that simply transmits a unique ID. Since the location of any given beacon is known (it’s recorded in a database when installed), using a beacon simply involves receiving the signal, evaluating its strength to get a rough estimation of range, and using another wireless technology, typically Wi-Fi, to establish a connection to the database. A few quick calculations using multiple beacons and voilà– the mobile devices knows where it is. Note that a potentially large number of beacons might required as each has a limited range and having more beacons improves accuracy regardless.
Which is better? I’d argue that a high-density deployment of Wi-Fi access points – which, by the way, also augments capacity and reliability – is the best solution overall. After all, a reverse or return channel is required to make use of BLE beacons, and that service will most often be – Wi-Fi! Given the potentially large number of beacons required, and the need to maintain a central database of beacon locations, the whole beacon approach – which, again, can work just fine – seems a bit complex. And don’t get me started on what happens if someone hacks that beacon database…

I think we’re all on the same page in knowing that at least a few applications of Internet of Things (IoT) are going to be huge successes over the next few years. My money’s on healthcare, security, and energy management in particular, but a key technology that offers significant added value across all three of these – and many more – is location and tracking.

Broadly defined, this is a set of technologies that can be used to determine the location of a given wireless-equipped device, and, in many cases, the ability to track this device, often in real time, as it moves.

Wireless location and tracking technologies have a long history, going back to radar (which, by the way, stands for radio detection and ranging), initially developed during World War II, and which are today broadly represented in GPS (the global positioning system) and E-911 capabilities on cellular networks.

But there’s more – much more, in fact.

The IoT world demands location and tracking solutions that are compact, inexpensive, reliable, proven, and suitable for indoor operations. This rules out GPS, which only works with a clear view of the sky, as well as essentially all of the E-911 technologies, given cellular’s notoriously poor in-building signal penetration.

Fortunately, two key technologies have emerged to meet the in-building location and tracking opportunity, addressing all of the constraints noted above.

Wi-Fi

The first of these is good old Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi infrastructure products, sometimes aided by third-party software and/or server additions, have long had the ability to locate and track Wi-Fi devices, and often with surprisingly good accuracy (I’ve obtained special resolution down to one square meter in many cases) and with quick time-to-solution as well.

Note that the Wi-Fi clients themselves are unmodified and no client-side software is required. Some Wi-Fi infrastructure products even include excellent location and tracking capabilities as a standard feature, at no additional charge!

Beacons

The second, and the one generating most of the buzz these days, is beacons, based on Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology. A beacon is a low-cost, battery-powered device (many of these advertise battery life in years, by the way) that simply transmits a unique ID.

Since the location of any given beacon is known (it’s recorded in a database when installed), using a beacon simply involves receiving the signal, evaluating its strength to get a rough estimation of range, and using another wireless technology, typically Wi-Fi, to establish a connection to the database. A few quick calculations using multiple beacons and voilà– the mobile devices knows where it is.

Note that a potentially large number of beacons might be required as each has a limited range, and having more beacons improves accuracy regardless.

Which is better?

I’d argue that a high-density deployment of Wi-Fi access points – which, by the way, also augments capacity and reliability – is the best solution overall. After all, a reverse or return channel is required to make use of BLE beacons, and that service will most often be – Wi-Fi!

Given the potentially large number of beacons required, and the need to maintain a central database of beacon locations, the whole beacon approach – which, again, can work just fine – seems a bit complex.

And don’t get me started on what happens if someone hacks that beacon database…

mm

Craig J. Mathias is a Principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm specializing in wireless networking and mobile IT. Founded in 1991, Farpoint Group works with technology developers, manufacturers, carriers and operators, enterprises, and the financial community. Craig is an internationally-recognized industry and technology analyst, consultant, conference and event speaker, and author. He currently writes columns for Boundless, Connected Futures, CIO.com, and various sites at TechTarget. Craig holds an Sc.B. degree in Computer Science from Brown University, and is a member of the Society of Sigma Xi and the IEEE.

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