How asset tracking technology has evolved

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A number of recent startups are taking a new run at the asset-tracking market, so it's worth asking what has changed in 10 years.

Not that long ago – 10 years at most – there was a crop of up-and-coming asset-tracking companies with names like Newbury and PanGo. Their solutions involved attaching Wi-Fi tags to expensive or scarce mobile assets and reporting their locations to back-end databases. If someone wanted to know where all the infusion pumps in a hospital had congregated (out of sight, as is their custom), the asset tracking screen would show what was where. The market for this type of asset tracking peaked in 2005 to 2007 and then subsided; some participants moved into new businesses, while others disappeared.

A number of startups, both old and recent, are taking a new run at this market, so it’s worth asking what has changed in 10 years and whether they have a better shot than their predecessors. 

Why was Wi-Fi asset tracking a difficult business back then? Two factors were crucial: battery life and system costs.

The tags comprised simple Wi-Fi chips, “chirping” every few seconds, with a battery that was advertised to last a year but in practice needed replacing every few months. When a hospital – and healthcare was the primary market – ramped up to a few thousand tracked assets, it took a significant amount of time to track down tags in the field when their batteries were failing. This became a real problem for network managers who disliked spending that much of their day walking the floor, pockets heavy with replacement batteries.

Also, costs were high, at maybe $100,000 to outfit a hospital with 1,000 tags. Part of this was in the tag itself, where volumes were never enough to walk down the curve to a price below $40 to $50, while a significant amount was in back-end integration. This entailed setting up the database to identify which tag was on which asset, importing floorplans and tracking locations, and crucially, integrating with existing inventory management and IT software like nurse-call systems.

These two factors made Wi-Fi asset tracking in 2006 a tough sale, despite the attraction of using the existing WLAN to identify and locate scarce, mobile resources. How are startups approaching the same market today?

First, BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) has arrived in iBeacon and Google Eddystone form. Beacons can be installed as infrastructure, requiring more power-hungry sensors as tags but providing commonality with navigation apps. Or the architecture can be reversed, with a low-power beacon as the tag and an infrastructure network of sensor radios… we will see both architectures explored. A BLE beacon as a tag has better battery life – although at 1 to 2 years battery replacement will still require effort – and a cost advantage over its Wi-Fi equivalent. BLE-based asset tracking tags cost maybe 50% of the equivalent Wi-Fi tags.

Not that Wi-Fi has been standing still. Advances in chip design and battery technology mean it’s possible to make a Wi-Fi asset tag in a nice package with a battery lasting 6 to 12 months. Wi-Fi chips are significantly cheaper than 10 years ago. And, assuming the venue already has a WLAN, a new managed infrastructure of BLE sensors or beacons isn’t required.

Perhaps the biggest difference between 2006 and today is with back-end systems integration. Ten years ago, a local asset-tracking server had to be spliced into the hospital’s IT systems to display information on existing screens at nurse stations around the building. Now, the natural way is to send data to a cloud service and display it on smartphones and tablets with an app. It’s much quicker and easier, although some hard tasks remain: programming tags, calculating their location from infrastructure sensors, and binding their ID to their associated asset names. 

These changes mean that it’s now viable to price per-tag, per-month – greatly easing the financial decision.

While developing the market, the original asset-tracking pioneers discovered high-value extensions: monitoring the temperature of vaccines, detecting when sensitive equipment was dropped or tilted in shipping, and other functions used sensors integrated in the tags. The smartphone age has decreased the cost of these sensors, enabling movement, temperature, barometric pressure and other parameters to be monitored along with location. This opens new possibilities, like measuring real estate occupancy, tracking food temperatures, and generating alerts when movement starts and stops. And today we can recognize that asset tracking is a subset of the Internet of Things, a much broader market and one for which tags can be expected to develop new capabilities.

The combination of lower-cost tags, longer battery life, monthly pricing, and monitoring via smartphone apps means we’ll see a number of new asset tracking solutions unveiled in the coming months. Most will use BLE beacons, but Wi-Fi will also be represented. There was always a business need for these solutions: while the technology may not have been ready 10 years ago, enough has changed to make it worth keeping an eye on this market.

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