We get regular questions about how our GPS tracking solution works and how it compares to other solutions on the market. It’s a great question and one that confuses a lot of people who misunderstand the capabilities and limitations of the different technologies upon which solutions are based.
So we created this article to quickly explain the different technologies, how they work, their limitations and where best to apply them.
Introduction to asset tracking technologies
Here’s a list of the most common technologies associated with GPS asset tracking, we will provide a quick overview of how each one works before moving onto the capabilities and limitations:
QR Codes for GPS asset tracking
QR codes are those small square pixel looking barcodes that made an appearance in the consumer market a few years ago. Since then they have peaked and waned as a tool for consumer marketing. In the meantime, a number of promising new applications have emerged that harness the unique strengths of these codes. The way we look at it is the QR code is for barcodes what the Internet was for networking. It’s the people’s choice, a simple to use, effective and ubiquitous way of digitally marking something in a fast machine readable coding. The power they offer is they tell people ‘you can scan me’ to get more information. While many other barcodes are just as easy to scan with a smartphone it’s the powerful association that makes the biggest difference.
QR codes alone have no GPS tracking capability, but since they can be easily scanned with a smartphone, it’s possible to associate the location of the smartphone with the location of the QR code and hence the item in question. This is how GoCodes works and is the subject of our US patent granted in 2015.
The benefits of this approach are the ease-of-use, low cost and broad application opportunities presented. The main drawback is that the GPS data is not real-time, it’s only updated when the QR code is scanned. The good news is that when used as part of an asset tracking solution, the scans can happen quite frequently and therefore quickly build up a good picture of the GPS location history of the asset.
Passive and Active RFID/NFC for asset tracking
There’s a common misconception today that RFID/NFC tags include real-time GPS tracking capabilities and that’s not the case. It may be because consumers associated the radio transmission part of the solution with an active transmitter capable of sharing real-time GPS data. We’re not sure.
RFID/NFC tags (both active and passive) work by transmitting a small data code (like a serial number) when they detect and absorb a radio signal sent from a scanner. The scanner in effect provides a small burst of radio energy which is used to power the tiny transmitter in the tag to transmit its small data signal back to the scanner. So the scanner performs two roles, that of the power source and that of the reader. Note active RFID tags may transmit all the time by using a dedicated power source.
Near Field Communication (NFC) refers to passive RFID tags that can be scanned by low power devices like an iPhone or Android phone by 'bumping' the phone up against the tag. This is the same technology used in iPay Apple's payment solution, Android and many others.
The RFID tags themselves usually contain passive data which does not change and therefore does not include GPS location information.
However, there are some industrial applications where the active and passive elements are combined in a closed environment to track the movement of items, note these solutions are very expensive when compared to other alternatives and are limited to the controlled environment in which they are installed. A common example of this would be a large warehouse where tracking inventory is automated within the confines of the building.
Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) for Asset Tracking
Bluetooth is normally associated with short-range audio connections like Bluetooth headphones or head-sets, but there is another variation of the technology called Bluetooth Low Energy or BLE for short. This technology allows a small low-powered device (small tags are common) to transmit data to nearby devices, most commonly smartphones or other Bluetooth enabled devices with a custom app installed. The data transmitted can include location data and it’s also possible for the smartphone to signal the transmitter to beep or perform other actions.
There are two main drawbacks with BLE for asset tracking. The first is the short transmission range for the tags, normally around 30 feet max. Secondly, they include a small battery which needs to be replaced periodically.
Long term, many solution providers are hoping to create ‘crowd-sourced’ real-time tracking system by utilizing the smartphones of thousands or millions of customers to receive signals and then relay that information back to the owner of the asset via another system. This is similar to the way Google obtains traffic flow data (from millions of people’s smartphones) which is then processed and presented in their Google Maps software.
SMS / GPS Tracking using Cellular/Mobile Networks
These systems have been around the longest and are closest to what people see in James Bond and other spy films where real-time accurate GPS tracking information is displayed on a map for a vehicle, person or other item. These solutions excel because they can truly provide real-time GPS data with high-resolution to a computer or smartphone.
They work by using the GPS signals and data networks provided by the national cell phone companies and are in many ways just a simplified smartphone that’s been dedicated to this purpose.
Unfortunately, while this solution meets most functional requirements, they have some serious limitations that reduce their application in the real-world. First they include a strong radio transmitter and therefore need a good source of power. Battery powered unit may only last hours or days in many instances and therefore limit the number of applications. So in practice they are most commonly used to track vehicles or heavy equipment that already has an on board power system they can utilize.
The second limitation is the cost. The units themselves typically cost from $100 per unit and also require a cell phone service or contract which typically runs $30/month. Then you typically incur the costs of a larger software management system.
Lastly, the size of these devices can be an issue and most start at the size of a small feature phone and go up to much larger units. Again this is rarely an issue when installing them on a vehicle, but may not work for smaller electronic equipment.
Technology Comparison Table
Looking for a quick comparison summary, here’s a quick table we put together:
Cost per Item
Very Low (<$1)
Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)
Very High ($100 +$30/month)
Based on the different capability and price points some common usage patterns emerge for these GPS tracking technologies. Here’s a summary:
Consumer Lost & Found
Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)
We hope this information was helpful, let us know what you think?
Looking for more information. Try this short article: Learn the Basics of GPS Tracking Using QR Codes, RFID, and Bluetooth Low Energy
Posted on Mon, July 18, 2016
by Todd Penny filed under