Where is X?
Asset tracking systems in Retail, Transportation and Logistics, Warehousing, Healthcare, Hospitality, and other markets all face the same issue: how to quickly find and locate assets.At the core, an Asset Tracking system involves three components:
1. Is the tracking range short (say, less than a few hundred meters) or long (e.g. many kilometers)? And if the range is long, does tracking information need to be available continuously, or only at certain points, such as the departure and arrival locations of package shipment?
The expected range may be the most important factor influencing the solution as it completely determines the Connectivity (and frequently the Location) technology required. For continuous, long-range tracking, such as freight transportation, some type of cellular (or possibly Low-powered WAN, aka LPWAN) communications is required, and GPS is likely to be included as well. Shorter-range tracking, such as tracking at shipment end-points, can work with local wireless communications (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and/or UWB). Connectivity also affects other components, as we shall see.
2. What is the required operating lifetime for tracking each asset?
Many tracking systems, though not all, use battery-powered tracking devices. Cellular connectivity and GPS both involve a significant power drain, so that either large batteries or frequent battery recharge are needed. Short-range connectivity (Bluetooth Low Energy, in particular) require much less power and may operate for months (or years) on small batteries. And (passive RFID) tags require no power at all, operating only subject to physical wear.
3. How frequently does the location information need to be updated?
Determining and communicating location requires energy from either a tracking device or an external source (e.g. RFID tag reader). Location information must be communicated to a recipient, regardless of whether this is a human, another device, or a tracking application. So, depending on the impact of this energy requirement (significant, for devices using batteries; irrelevant, for automated RFID tag readers) it may be important to lower the frequency of location updates. This can usually be done by knowing how the location will be used. For example, tracking packages may only require the location to be updated when the package is moved.
4. Will the location be made available automatically, or will some outside action, such as scanning an asset with an RFID tag reader, be required?
Automated systems are desirable because of availability, and because they require no human intervention. However, they may not always be practical or cost effective. The upshot of this is that location information may become stale.
5. How accurate must the location be?
Systems with lower accuracy (a few meters to tens of meters) are typically less expensive and easier to deploy than highly accurate positioning (a few centimeters). And in many cases, proximity location rather than pinpoint accuracy may be "good enough" for the intended use.
6. How will the location information be consumed?
Tracking information may be conveyed in many ways: to a user through display of latitude and longitude (or a graphical point on a map), programmatically to an application using an API, or integrated with other systems, such as inventory management. Transfer of information can be a source of system lock-in; buying or building components or solutions with standard interfaces can help to reduce this problem, and make it easier to switch between components, end applications, and vendors.
Beyond the above issues, other factors, such as application server placement (cloud, on-premise), security, regulatory compliance, and maintenance also play a role in selecting an Asset Tracking solution, or choosing and integrating the components thereof.
This is a very simplistic view of Asset Tracking, and many highly sophisticated systems and solutions exist. But for a variety of environments, a few questions and a choices go a long way toward finding a good answer to "Where is X?".
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