Real time location system (RTLS) and radio-frequency identification (RFID) or Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) tech, active or passive or what?

Last time I wrote about customer experience and B2B and promised to continue it with part 2. Just a couple of hours ago however, I had an intriguing Facebook discussion with an old friend regarding RFID and BLE tech and decided to write a couple of sentences of them. You should bear in mind these technologies have everything to do with customer experience as well.

Considering real time location systems my friend has obviously something related to B2B and logistics in his mind. However, the adoption of the technology ranges from asset tracking to transportation, healthcare, manufacturing, aerospace, defence, government, retail to people just to mention a few and numerous verticals within B2B and B2C segments. It is however true that the most promising sectors are within B2B and logistics and asset or fleet tracking due to the operational efficiencies, profits, and customer satisfaction, which are in turn driving the customer experience.

Before diving deeper into the subjects and usage cases let’s look at what are we talking about.

RFID technology

RFID stands for Radio-Frequency Identification. Almost like a barcode, it provides a unique identifier for a device reading it. The difference compared to barcode is that one does not need to position RFID device precisely relative to the scanner. RFID requires hardware/firmware that can process signals at specific frequencies and the hardware is expensive. The RFID tags itself are very cheap and cost almost nothing.

Active or passive RFID?

The short description above describes a passive RFID system, but if you are interested in real time location system (RTLS) then you need an active RFID’s. Active RFID system offers extensive capabilities in e.g. for asset tracking or even logistics. These tags are battery powered and send a signal to a receiver, which can be located nearly 30 meters away. While passive RFID need to brought in very close proximity of the reader (normally max 10cm). What about the costs then? A passive RFID tags are very cheap and the readers starting from $1500. If you however are interested in an active system the price of a tag is starting from $15 and above.

BLE stands for Bluetooth Low Energy

BLE utilizes so-called Bluetooth Low Energy tags, small devices that send a signal that can be picked up by other Bluetooth device and then indicate the distance between the tag and a reader. The integration of BLE system can be easier with other systems due to the wide adoption of Bluetooth standard e.g. in smartphones (almost all phones are using the technology nowadays).

BLE sounds good, but where do I need it if an active RFID does the same thing?

Well, good question if your pockets are filled with dough. But if they are not you have to consider the usage purpose. BLE and an active RFID systems use both tags to send signals for readers. Then the signals are analyzed and the location of the tags determined based on that. Major difference however is the use case where smartphones can be used as part of the system.

Let’s move on. There’s another but and that is when the area is rather large indoor or outdoor location. As active RFID readers price starts from $1000 and above and the corresponding price of a BLE gateway perhaps $120 or less.

If you are considering an active RFID RTLS system including a 1000 units in your purpose, the price will be somewhere $40-50k’s. If you however are considering the same system using Bluetooth beacons technology the price will be somewhere $10-15k’s. The reason is quite simple; BLE has much longer reach optimally 70 meters whereas active RFID systems up to 30 meters and needs much more readers.

Now let’s get back to my friends interest. I presume he has containers/large items he wants to track during their journey from point A to B. This has everything to do where and how the containers/large items are moving.

1 k8n7Jx9UaLRAxum9HMp8nQIf the freight is moved by a ship or by boat the case is more complex. RTLS means you have accurate information where the containers/large items are all the time. This means we have to know where the freight is also on the sea, where is no mobile nor WiFi connection available. In this case I would use BLE tags, which are connected to a receiver, which in turn uses satellite connection to transmit the location data to the server. This is perhaps the most expensive use case, but however possible with today’s technology. Other possibility is to use MESH network inside the ship, when all the BLE tags in this case mesh nodes cooperate in the distribution of data to the satellite receiver. One issue to consider is also the battery life as the container/large items can travel up to 2-3 months if originated from Asia and travelling to Europe. This however, should not be a challenge if the location-related data is sent only once in an hour. In the case of Asia, the new Silk Road train connection will also fasten and shorten the distance considerably.

If the freight is moved with vehicles the case is rather simple. In this case the BLE tags are sending the data to a receiver, which in turn uses mobile connection (2G,3G,4G,LTE) to transmit the data to the system. In this case the transmitter could be mounted to the truck and BLE tags to the containers/large items or only transmitters could be used. If one needs to know what the location of a single pack inside the container is, the BLE tag should be on the pack and transmitter on the container. In this case however, there is a challenge with the container, which can form Faraday’s cage.

In summary the use case determines whether an active RFID or BLE system should be implemented. In case of a B2B warehouse it can be enough if the system knows what is inside, when a passive RFID system can be implemented. If it is a question of a logistics and tracking of a cargo a system described above could be most beneficial.

In B2C channel the use cases are numerous and ranging from car rental to retail to people tracking and travel retail, which I find especially fascinating due to the fact, it combines luxury industry and airports where the adoption of technology is still rather low. This however, is completely different story and require much more pages.

Lenni Koivisto

 

The writer has started his career in a variety of roles relating to brands, marketing and sales, later strategies and larger brand migrations. Travel retail and FMCG business globally and business development in small and large companies are also part of his repertoire. In service industry; he has been a strategic management team member, international sales champion and marketing guru mainly due to his creative and innovative approach to the industry and life. He is confident presenter and been e.g. in Slush presenting the winning pitch in the Elisa (international Telco operator) IoT Challenge competition (https://youtu.be/fiN7KRStPbw). The writer has also extensive knowledge and experience of business in the Nordic’s, the Baltic’s, China and South East Asia.

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