How to choose the most suitable positioning system?

A desire to localise and track the position of people and devices is a common business case nowadays. There’s plenty of buzzwords - Internet of Things (IoT), wearable devices, smart home, asset management, but usually the idea is similar - to understand the location technology both indoors and outdoors and then thanks to custom software development make use of this information for a range of vivid business purposes.

With a vast variety of different positioning systems available on the market, it’s easy to get lost in the maze. There’s plenty of things to take into consideration such as range, accuracy, power consumption or use cases of each solution. 

In this piece, we’ll give an overview of different options available. We’ll take a close look at GPS, Bluetooth® Low Energy, AoA/AoD, WiFi, RFID, NFC, VLB, UWB and other interesting technologies to observe. Sit back, relax and read on!

 

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a satellite-based navigation system that is not openly available and quite popular. Each one of at least 24 GPS satellites circles the Earth constantly transmitting a signal, that is received by GPS devices in order to calculate it’s exact location. GPS determines the distance by the amount of time needed to receive the signal.

This approach has some disadvantages. It’s accuracy is quite low and never very precise, and often struggles with indoor location technology, where the signal is weaker. Not to mention the huge power consumption it generates. All in all, GPS is great for map routing, but not exactly for IoT purposes.

Range: 20 000 km - orbital
Accuracy: around 5 meters
Power consumption: high
Use: outdoor
Use cases: maps, routes, sports, aviation
Sample success story: Glonnas, Galileo and Beidou - Russian, European and Chinese navigation systems

Bluetooth Low Energy is a 2.4 GHz wireless radio system, using one-way communication based on low power beacons in a short-range in order to determine and measure the position of a device. It analyses the strength of the signal to understand if the device is closer or further from the range of the beacon. Using that, custom software can trigger specific actions.

Although Bluetooth LE has recently been brought by Apple to the forefront of proximity detection, it’s not actually a great and precise distance tracking tool. For example, an obstacle between the device and the beacon would weaken the signal, which would be understood as leaving its range, when in fact neither of the objects are moving. BLE is great for proximity-related marketing tools, though.

Range: around 10-20 meters
Accuracy: averagely around 3 meters
Power consumption: low
Use: rather indoor
Use cases: IoT, proximity-related marketing, retail
Sample success story: Kontakt.io IoT solutions

 

Angle of Arrival (AoA) and Angle of Departure (AoD) are methodologies for calculating positioning estimates for tracked items (e.g. Bluetooth enabled devices) based on angular measurements. AoA systems feature network-centric architectures, where the tracked device transmits radio signals that are used by the central infrastructure to calculate a positioning estimate for the device. AoD systems have mobile-centric architectures, similar to that used by GPS, in which the tracked device calculates its own position based on data received from the network.

The advantages of using angular measurements are that such systems can provide accurate results, consistently, even in more challenging environments. By tracking Bluetooth enabled devices, AoA and AoD solutions can also achieve significant scalability advantages thanks to the wide range of long-lasting and cost-effective trackable tags for different industries available on the market. These solutions are particularly popular in retail and asset tracking cases, where more precision is required.

Range: up to 300 meters
Accuracy: down to centimeter-level
Power consumption: low
Use: indoor/outdoor
Use cases: asset tracking, proximity-related marketing, IoT
Sample success story: Quuppa - real-time locating system for different industries 

WiFi is a wireless protocol used commonly for area networking of devices and Internet access. When it comes to positioning solutions, Wifi is based on tags and transmitters that send out packets of data. This data is being analysed from the perspective of time needed to transmit and signal strength to compute location information. 

WiFi is definitely the most common indoor-location solution, and it’s widely available and universally used. Almost every IoT device is WiFi-enabled which makes this technology an easy choice to apply when developing a custom location software tool. Unfortunately, the costs of WiFi routers and tags are relatively high, the battery power consumption is huge and the location accuracy is really poor, compared to other available solutions.

Range: around 50 meters, but can be extended
Accuracy: 3-5 meters but not determining exact location
Power consumption: high, WiFi routers need to be plugged in all the time
Use: rather indoor, but also outdoor
Use cases: IoT, Internet access, manufacturing
Sample success story: OCKO - Analytic platform allowing for registering human behaviour within a specified time and space 

 

Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) is a wireless solution allowing to identify and track objects and devices. RFID is based on an antenna reader and a transponder - a tag. These can be either active (with their own power source) or passive, meaning needed to be supplied with energy by the reader. When a tag reaches the field of a reader, a custom build software triggers specific actions.

Unfortunately, RFID is not suitable to measure the distance between the reader and the tag - it is only fit to understand if the transponder is within the antenna range or not. Nonetheless, this technology is commonly used for access control, workforce management, manufacturing, logistics and inventories.

Range: Active RFID systems can reach up to 100 meters, passive around 10 meters
Accuracy: relevant to range, but not measuring distance
Power consumption: rather high
Use: indoor and outdoor
Use cases: logistics, access control, workforce management
Sample success story: CipherLab - Rugged Touch Mobile Computer

 

Near Field Communication (NFC) is a similar concept to RFID, as it’s based on the same protocols. It’s a wireless technology operating on high frequencies, enabling devices in near proximity to communicate and exchange data. 

The core difference between NFC and RFID is that a NFC-enabled device can work as both reader and a transponder (a tag), enabling to transfer data in both directions between devices. Since it has a really small range of just 4 centimeters, this technology has a limited use, focused mostly around secure communication, access control and contactless payments.

Range: 4 centimeters
Accuracy: very accurate
Power consumption: low
Use: both indoor and outdoor
Use cases: access control, contactless payments, secure communication
Sample success story: NFC Contactless payments

 

Visible Light Communication (VLC) is a wireless high-speed data transmission technology based on a stream of visible light. Here, data is transmitted by modulating the intensity of a LED light, readed by a photodetector (a diode) and translated into information by a custom software solution.

VLC introduces a spectrum larger than a radio frequency, that is definitely less congested. It’s also an incredibly fast technology, making the communication almost instantaneous. VLC works well in user-dense environments, as well as offers safety in hazardous industries. Although obviously, it won’t be suitable in situations where walls or objects interfere with the stream of light.

Range: 2 kilometers
Accuracy: 3-30 centimeters
Power consumption: medium (lower than traditional light)
Use: indoor
Use cases: aircrafts, hospitals, mines
Sample success story: Philips Indoor Positioning

 

Ultra Wideband (UWB) is a relatively new technology that is by many deemed to revolutionise the world of wireless positioning and tracking. It is similar to Bluetooth and WiFi in a sense that it operates via short-range radio frequencies. UWB-enabled devices send and receive data in a form of radio energy. Calculating the round trip time of response is used as a method of localising position and measuring distance.

Thanks to the wideness of UWB’s signal, the accuracy of location information is really high and in real-time. At the same time, it consumes less power than other comparable technologies. Although the costs of implementing UWB are still relatively expensive and the solution itself is not that popular yet, UWB is believed to be the next big thing when it comes to positioning and tracking technologies.

Range: effectively up to 25 meters
Accuracy: 5-10 centimeters
Power consumption: low
Use: indoor and outdoor
Use cases: IoT, Smart Home, tracking and positioning systems
Sample success story: Spark Control - indoor positioning system

 

Plenty of positioning systems - plenty of opportunities

 

Sounds like a variety of options? Well, that’s not even all! Apart from these listed above, there’s plenty of other options that are also worth taking into consideration. Just take a look at 1rwave, which is a wireless active, real-time location tracking technology. It’s even more functional than UWB and more precise than beacon-based solutions. Definitely another interesting tool to observe!

With that wide spectrum of available positioning and tracking technologies, there’s surely a good selection of options to choose from. Long or short range, indoor or outdoor, low or high battery consumption, more or less precise accuracy, different technologies leveraged to make the tracking work - there’s a little something for everyone.

Nevertheless, in order to fully tap into the vast pool of benefits introduced by a certain positioning technology, one needs to put a layer of custom software development on top of it. And for that to happen, a business needs a reliable partner with hands-on experience in building software solutions leveraging tracking and positioning technologies. Such as EMBIQ - just take a look at EMBIQ's capabilities.