Positioning Technologies for IoT: The Thin End of the Wedge

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By Tancred Taylor | 2Q 2021 | IN-6140

Location technologies continue to evolve, driving the market to adapt a wide range of newer technology.

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Network-Based Location Seeing Big Design Wins


The market for location technologies in the Internet of Things (IoT0 is starting to see increasing interest and uptake from device original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). While global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) were, even a few years ago, the largely accepted technology for asset tracking, a number of competing and complementary technologies are increasingly being tested and found to be appropriate by device manufacturers. A summary of the narrative around GNSS is as follows: the technology offers the best accuracy, but consumes a lot of power and comes with additional hardware (and therefore cost) requirements, which makes it less attractive for battery-powered applications, like asset tracking. Besides, only a select few use cases in the asset tracking market actually require the high level of precision offered. As such, the market is low-hanging fruit for alternative location technology providers.

This narrative is increasingly gaining traction, as witnessed by a number of recent significant design wins and announcements. Hybrid location provider Skyhook has been in the news four times since the beginning of 2021. The first announcement concerned the sale of the analytics side of its business (Geospatial Insights), suggesting a stronger focus on its core Precision Location products (February 2021). The next two announcements were significant design wins with OEMs: fast-growing Tive and well-established Alps Alpine adopted Skyhook (March 2021) to provide higher accuracy network and/or Wi-Fi based positioning on their devices. Both of these previously used other forms of network-based positioning (Cell-ID for Tive, MAC address scanning for Alps Alpine); this partnership represents the next step up in accuracy, functionality, and power consumption. The fourth announcement was its integration with Microsoft (April 2021) to provide better geolocation services to its Azure Suite customers – likely enabling similar functionalities to those provided by Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) partnership with HERE Technologies earlier this year. In a similar vein, cloud-based LTE network location provider Polte announced partnerships with solution provider PassTime (December 2020) and leading IoT telephone company (telco), Deutsche Telekom (April 2021).

Sometimes You Can't Make it on Your Own


OEMs, hyperscalers, and telcos are increasingly looking at alternative technologies to standard GNSS-only positioning. Roambee last year started offering location services based on its proprietary Wi-Fi MAC address database – an important shift as Roambee moves further toward becoming a software and services provider, suggesting that it sees these location services as a significant value-add for many of its customers, and therefore wants to be in control of them. The LoRa Alliance, in November 2020, additionally released a white paper highlighting the synergies between long range wide-area network (LoRaWAN) and Wi-Fi for communication and positioning, and it is clear from looking at the non-cellular LPWA ecosystems that network-based positioning has already seen significant adoption because of the required focus on low-power use-cases. On the cellular side, while many companies have previously used cellular network positioning offered by telcos (Cell-ID, enhanced Cell-ID), the emergence of positioning technologies that increasingly offload location computation to the cloud has a significant positive impact on the accuracy and power consumption of devices, changing the business case for OEMs.

There are two principal approaches to facilitating positioning in asset tracking applications. The first approach, as noted, is to increase the capabilities on the cellular (and non-cellular) network positioning side, with the benefits of expanding yield and coverage in built-up areas in particular, doing away with the need for additional components (such as a GNSS receiver and antenna), and reducing power consumption. The second approach is to improve on existing GNSS capabilities. While network-based positioning is a key enabling technology for low-power applications, GNSS is not a technology of the past and is receiving extensive development and investment. Two further recent announcements include u-blox’s release of CloudLocate, claiming to reduce power consumption by up to 90% compared to traditional GNSS by offloading computation to the cloud; and Nestwave’s recent €2.4 million financing round, enabling it to continue commercializing its cloud-based GNSS technology that operates without the need for a GNSS chip and which is targeted at low-power IoT. These technologies help take GNSS beyond assisted global positioning systems (aGPS) and makes the technology increasingly suited for the most size and power constrained devices. The two approaches are complementary, not exclusive. The most established vendors, such as HERE Technologies and Skyhook, pride themselves on their hybrid positioning capabilities – mixing all forms of indoors and outdoors location and communication technologies to position a device accurately, and to offer OEMs a broad choice based on their individual use-case. The emerging cloud-based approaches will further open up the space for location vendors to work together to bring to market a comprehensive location solution for all sorts of applications.  

Breaking Us Down, When They All Should Let Us Be


This last point is key to the development of the market for location services. Most frequently, companies offering the most innovative cloud-based solutions are startups investing heavily in a single technology type based on a narrow area of expertise. However, one size is unlikely to fit all for most OEMs, with the large majority of these on the asset tracking front using a combination of location technologies in a single device. The biggest winners in the location market currently are those location suppliers able to offer the best location accuracy across a wide range of technology types – rather than based on a single technology. An additional layer on top of this, and a separate topic of discussion, is the ability to use this location data to provide a comprehensive range of location-based software and services.

Cloud-based location technologies will furthermore significantly alter device designs, OEM approaches to device and solution development, and enterprise requirements as industry-specific use-cases become more clearly defined. Whether in device type (e.g., smart labels), offer model to the customer, device pricing, services, flexibility of offering, or overall value to a customer, emerging location technologies will help transform what gets connected and how it gets connected. In particular, as these technologies start reaching maturity (as with Polte or Nestwave), and as testing and tweaking enables location service providers to deliver what they promise from these solutions, OEMs can less and less afford to ignore them. Several have established themselves as leaders in the early stages of the asset tracking market; but as this market grows to beyond its initial basic parameters, OEMs will be at the forefront of delivering new solutions and enabling new use-cases.   



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