We receive 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 today's solutions are based.
RFID Hype vs. Reality - A Quick Summary
We receive a lot of questions from customers who incorrectly believe that RFID solutions provide affordable real-time GPS tracking and that's not the case in most real-world applications. In many ways it appears that the marketing buzz surrounding RFID has overtaken the reality of these solutions. In an ideal world, many customers are looking for a real-time GPS tracking solution that's the size of a button and costs less than $10 per item. The bad news is it does not exist - yet.
RFID can be effective for customers that fit into a scenario where they have a controlled indoor warehouse environment where they can install RFID scanners at key corner locations which can then triangulate and locate items based on their location within the warehouse. The drawback for most is the cost which at $250,000 and up seriously limits the application. When you include handheld scanners that can cost over $3,000 each it really is still a specialty technology often only suited to large organizations that can afford to make substantial investments in the installation and maintenance of such a system.
So to help educate customers, 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, limitations and suggested applications:
QR Codes for GPS Asset Tracking
QR codes are those small square pixel looking bar codes that made an appearance in the consumer market a few years ago. They have been used in manufacturing for many years. Since then they have peaked and waned as a tool for consumer marketing among other things. In the meantime, a number of promising new applications have emerged that harness the unique strengths of these bar 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 with a easy-to-use, fast machine readable coding. The power they offer is they tell people ‘you can scan me’ to get more information about an item or location. While many other barcodes are just as easy to scan with a smartphone it’s the powerful association with consumer scanning 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 asset or item in question. This is how GoCodes works and is the subject of our US patent granted in 2015.
QR Codes Enable Low Cost GPS Tracking
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 updated when the QR code is scanned with a smartphone that has a GPS signal. The good news is that when used as part of an asset tracking solution, the scans can happen regularly and automatically and therefore they quickly build up an accurate picture of the GPS location history of the asset.
Passive and Active Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) / Near Field Communication (NFC) for Asset Tracking
There’s a common misconception today that RFID/NFC tags provide real-time GPS tracking capabilities. 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.
Active and Passive RFID
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 (radio wave transmitted) power source and that of the reader. Note active RFID tags transmit continuously using a dedicated power source.
NFC refers to passive RFID tags which 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 Apple's iPay payment solution, Android's payments and many others. Retailers use this solution to tag their more valuable merchandise and it's these tags that can trigger the alarm when an items passes through the scanner located to either side of the store entry doorways.
The RFID tags themselves usually contain passive data which does not change and therefore does not include GPS location information.
There are some industrial applications where the active and passive elements are combined in a closed environment like a warehouse 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. Note that while they can provide real-time location information, it only working within the confines of the warehouse.
Apple announced changes to RFID/NFC support in iPhone 7 and iOS 11
Apple has just announced that the latest version of iOS software, iOS 11 will open up access to their NFC chip. This is something that Apple has not provided before and has meant that iPhones could not be used to scan NFC/RFID tags unlike some Android phones which provided access to this technology a few years earlier.
We expect that in the near future developers will start offering new applications that harness this new feature for new consumer and commercial applications. At GoCodes, we are evaluating adding NFC tag scanning to all our mobile apps now that Apple has enabled this feature.
In order to use this feature your will need to wait for iOS 11 to be released, most likely in September 2017 and will also need an iPhone 7 or newer device.
Smartphone add-ons for true RFID scanning at distance
There are a number of third-party vendors who provide smartphone add-on solutions which add the capability to scan RFID tags at a distance. These hardware devices allow common Apple and Android smartphones to become true RFID scanners. In some applications this can make sense as smartphone hardware can be very cost effective vs. dedicated scanned that are still very expensive. The main drawback is you now need to consider providing dedicated smartphones for each user, so it's not really a great solution for employees and companies that want to use a BYOD device strategy.
One example of these devices is the CipherLab 1861 device, though at $561 it may mean your looking at a $1,500 solution when you include a new smartphone and data plan.
Another option for iPhone is the InfineaX which costs $799.
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 that have 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 working 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. That's how Google Maps is able to display traffic congestion information in real-time to drivers.
SMS & GSM Based 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 sent by satellites and harness GSM data networks provided by the national cell phone companies. In many ways they are similar to a simplified smartphone that’s been customized to this purpose.
Unfortunately, while these solutions meets most functional requirements, they have some serious limitations that reduce their application in the real-world. First require a powerful GSM radio transmitter and therefore need a strong source of power. Battery powered units 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 have an on-board power system.
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 large 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)
Low (<$10). Scanners cost ~$3,000 each
High ($100). Scanner cost ~$3,000 each
Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)
Very High ($100 one-time +$20/month)
Tracking Technology Application Guide
Based on the different capability and price points some common usage patterns emerge for these GPS tracking technologies. Here’s a summary:
|Asset Tracking||Warehouse Inventory||Fleet Tracking||Consumer||Retail|
|Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)||X||X|
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
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