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Network World - Locating and tracking an object via radio waves has been in everyday use since the WWII invention of RADAR (Radio Detection And Ranging). Today, everybody from automobile drivers to airline pilots to mapmakers to construction professionals rely on GPS, another form of radio-based location and tracking.
It's unfortunate that GPS doesn't work indoors because indoor location and tracking is becoming essential in fields as diverse as manufacturing, logistics, transportation, healthcare, education and retail. Plus, there are emerging opportunities such as location-based services (LBS) - finding, for example, the nearest printer, item on store shelves, or defibrillator, just for starters.
Given the increasing presence (and, we believe, eventual ubiquity) of Wi-Fi systems across the enterprise, and the growing potential for Wi-Fi-based location and tracking services, we decided to try out a few of the leading products in an effort to better understand the capabilities and limitations of today's offerings, and to do a little comparative analysis with as level a playing field as possible.
We chose Network World's offices in Framingham, Mass., to install, calibrate, and use Wi-Fi-based location and tracking products from Aerohive, Ekahau and Motorola. These products are also sometimes called real-time location systems (RTLS) or asset-tracking systems.
According to our market research, usage of such systems is in the low single-digits among those with Wi-Fi systems installed. And awareness of the capabilities, applicability, and potential of the technology is only slightly better, so our goal was to put these products on the radar screen, so to speak, of IT professionals who operate Wi-Fi networks.
Network World's offices are located in a large, multi-tenant building, and, as can be seen in the illustrations accompanying this article, we used a portion of their space covering about 9,000 square feet. There were a good number of operational wireless LANs located nearby, as determined by our Fluke Networks AirCheck Wireless Tester, but interference was not a concern - location and tracking systems do not require the transfer of large amounts of data.
Instead, a reasonable percentage of "good" samples, quantified as the percentage of 802.11 frames sent by the client and successfully received by the infrastructure, are all that is required for the location and tracking algorithms to do their job. The actual processing involved with all of the products tested here uses RSSI, or received signal strength indication. Given the laws of physics and the vagaries of radio propagation, this technique can get tricky, but, as we saw, it also works quite well in practice. Note that any Wi-Fi-equipped device - from handsets and tablets to notebooks and specialized devices -- can be tracked with no modifications or additions to the device.
The general process for testing a Wi-Fi-based location and tracking solution usually begins with a properly configured and functioning WLAN infrastructure. With this as a point of departure, we examined three alternatives: