talking heads

in conversation with Dr Paul Delooze
RFID Technical Manager

  1. Asset Tracking
    1. What is meant by asset tracking? Asset tracking is an automatic mechanism of obtaining the last know location of any mobile item in use by an organisation. The asset can vary in scale from tools and products, roll cages and pallets to trailers and containers and beyond. The data provided is usually a unique ID, location and other telemetry data for the asset, that after analysis can derive an operational profile over time for that asset. 2. What value does asset tracking bring to a company and how can it benefit internal processes and procedures? The primary value case is to bring visibility to any internal processes and procedures which utilise those assets by collecting their associated data in an automatic transparent way, rather than ad hoc human based methods. This is true of any automation, but for mobile assets it is complicated by scale possible of location, data collection means, human interaction and cost benefit analysis of collecting data against asset cost or utility. 3. How does it work? For any system it is the same configuration, a unique ID is assigned to an asset, and an automated reading mechanism is required to read that unique ID. Then the data is transferred to a storage and analysis system or a local control mechanism. This has been the case from the earliest barcode systems. The major qualifying factor really is proximity between the unique ID transponder and the reading mechanism or in other words the reading range, and from that all the other technical constraints that enable that data come into play. Since the development of multiple different wireless data systems, the range at which data can be sent has increased to global. 4. Can asset tracking apply to any item? There is now a huge range of technologies which mean that any product can be tracked to some extent, tiny passive RFID tags can allow items down to a component level to be locally identified, in ranges from contact to around a meter, right up to direct satellite communication to allow assets to be located globally. Technical constraints limit the size and the lifetime that the tag transponder that can hold the unique ID can operate for, which limit the type and size of asset they can be applied to. In most cases capital and operating costs come into play when deciding on which technology to use to track an asset which override the purely technical challenge. 5. What are the technical requirements and limitations of an asset tracking system? The biggest requirement for an asset tracking system is firstly deciding on how the system should work, that is what is the scope of asset types, the telematics to be collected and how frequently, where can the assets be located when they being utilised, and what environment can they be in, again this is true of most automated applications. However, most critically for a mobile asset does the requirements of the asset tracking system require a powered or passive unique ID transponder. In comparison to the consumer market most assets will not have the luxury of being recharged frequently if at all during their operational lifetime so any powered technology must be designed ideally to last the operational lifetime of the asset. This can be a substantial challenge. That being said, the reading infrastructure also can provide significant technical challenges depending on the desired proximity of the reading operation, this can range from contact, to short range of 1 to 10 meters, normally where a passive transponder would be used on an asset but the quantity of the reading infrastructure has to increase to cover a large reading range. On the flip side use of cellular technology gives you national reading infrastructure but an on cost for operation per asset and an increased technical requirement for the powered unique ID transponders. RTLS specialty is designing systems that lie in the middle ground of reading range, reading infrastructure and technical requirement compromises the so called Low-Power Wide-Area Network or LPWAN. The next biggest area is the difference between being detected as present in a read range and knowing a more defined position within the read range. There is an automatic assumption that they one and the same when they are vastly different in terms of technical requirements. This issue increases with the size of the read range in proportion to accuracy to position it. For instance, allocating the asset to a 10m geo fence with a 1km read range will require the use of GPS or other high power technology rather than estimates from received power measurements. 6. Is there a compromise between battery life / scanning distance and the frequency of asset reads Yes, it is a compromise of physics, laws effecting the operational in the wireless spectrum, the system requirements in terms of data quantity and frequency and the locational accuracy as described previously. In simple terms for national coverage and precise location it is still necessary to use the cellular infrastructure combined with GPS in the licensed frequency bands. This is a relatively high power consumption due to distances to the cell towers and on operational costs. Additionally, it is not really designed to sending small quantities of data, so compromises have to be made to data frequency and quantity to preserve power. For a LPWAN system read ranges range from around 100m to 10km and the infrastructure is being rolled out over different technology platforms by private networks to provide read coverage where it is required for the asset tracking solution. These systems will be optimised for the asset type and application the system requires in order to balance out the tradeoff of range, power consumption, size cost etc. 7. where are the future developments in asset tracking and what can the market expect in the future? Development of specific wireless standards that are optimised for the connection of more devices, (Internet of Things) that is sending small quantities of data at regular intervals at the longest range for optimised power, have been in design by multiple special interest groups and companies for years, and are now just moving to hardware. This is being delivered in both the licensed cellular band and ISM band to allow the collection of more data from devices then was previously possible. However, no matter how the well the standard is designed, they are still for general usage or static powered devices, and proprietary systems based on those standards will be needed to cover extreme usage cases, in which much of the long life mobile asset tracking market still falls. However, the new standards give a much better foundation to build on compared to now. Further integration of the electronics at silicon level allow lower power consumption, smaller device footprint and capital costs but they are more specialist with a lower market requirement, with is a change to the traditional multimillion volume to cover costs in going to silicon. A new business model will have to be identified in order to allow that specialisation at lower volumes. 8. Are there compliance laws attached to the use of electronic equipment in sensitive areas; inflammable areas, explosives, NHS and care homes? All electronic equipment has to pass some basic EMC testing (EMC directive (2014/30/EU) and voltage safety in order to display the CE mark, on top of this wireless equipment that is intentionally producing emissions or designed to receive them have to pass additional tests dependent on the frequency spectrum and usage (ETSI). In more generally defined as Hazardous areas, there are numerous standards that have to be passed regarding the electrical equipment and its enclosure depending on requirement and the CE mark is supplemented by the Ex mark and group and category that the device has been tested against. In the medical electronics market there are rigorous tests under EN60601, but in general this only applies to move complex equipment or items that directly pass energy to a patient. On top of all of this there are ISO standards for specialised equipment that need to be passed if a transponder tag is integrated into another asset or device in order to collect data 9. What are the relevant costs to such a system, and the likely ROI? Most of the costs relate to the type of the system looking to be deployed, but in general it would be the cost of the transponder tag, fitting / installing the tag to each asset, on cost for operation such as data charges, battery changes or swapping transponder tags to new assets, depending on the business model this could be purchase or leased. For the reading infrastructure it depends on the technology deploy, with cellular requiring no cost and in passive and LPWAN systems it is the cost of the physical reader, fitting / installing the device, on costs for operation such as a cellular data backend link or data charges for using other fixed data lines, renting space for the device / antennas, servicing and maintaining the infrastructure on so on. This will scale depending on the reading coverage the system requires, from a few depots, to fitting readers to every vehicle in the fleet or every delivery end point and customer. The return on investment depends on the value of the asset or operational cost of not having the utility of the asset. On top of this other usage and telemetry data can be utilised for operational savings in an organisation. 10. What is the future landscape for asset tracking in relation to smart technologies; and in particular smart shops / smart cities? Smart technologies are really only talking about trying to allow another tier of devices to be able to transfer data to the internet, the key problem in this is what standard to use to allow this data to be transferred wirelessly, as there is no single general method of achieving it. Ubiquitous standards that exist today such as WiFi or bluetooth or other 2.4GHz systems can already service the home / shop environment due to range and presence of existing reading technology, but the challenge in the shop is the cross over to more industrial type sensing and control systems requiring a separate design case from an off the shelf consumer product. Additionally assets that are present in shops from delivery are unlikely to be using a 2.4GHz standard and cannot be read by the existing infrastructure, so additional reading hardware needs to be installed, but which standard(s) should be covered and who is going to pay for this and the on cost? Will it be an open or private nework? These are still the questions that need to be answered by the market and the technology industry before mass adoption is possible to give the aggregation of smart shops / house / locations to give coverage of a smart city. Attempting to give very long range coverage in an urban environment is challenging and also forces the tag transponder to use more power to communicate at range which feeds back into the compromise on design that has been mentioned previously limiting use cases.