A more effective system for utilizing RTLS is set to emerge alongside 5G deployment.
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5G Networking Being Used to Connect RTLS Anchors
The Industry 4.0 revolution leverages many different digital technologies, achieving more together than apart. When it comes to 5G and Real-Time Locating Systems (RTLS), there has long existed the idea that 5G positioning and its high precision could be used to contribute to the accuracy and flexibility of RTLS. While 5G positioning may be available to RTLS deployments of the future, existing pilot deployments from major 5G suppliers, such as Huawei and Deutsche Telekom, and RTLS vendors, such as BlueIoT, are instead using 5G private networks for its connectivity, backhauling RTLS data for more mature positioning technologies such as Bluetooth Low-Energy (LE) and Ultra-Wideband. Use of 5G connectivity for RTLS backhaul provides companies with increased deployment flexibility and allows them to reduce the costs associated with installation, maintenance, and deployment times, as well as reduced costs of wires for power over Ethernet connections.
Simple and Integrated Deployments are Here to Stay
Power over Ethernet (PoE) stands as the standard method for backhauling RTLS data, connecting the static anchors in an RTLS to either the cloud or a local network. Since anchors require both a network and power connection, the combination PoE cable is perfect for the job. However, where issues arrive are from the costs of installation as well as the continued expense of network management. By offloading the data backhaul to a wireless connection (i.e., Wi-Fi or a low-power wide-area network (LPWAN) such as LoRa), the anchors would simply need power. RTLS providers such as Kontakt.io and Midmark have gone as far as providing battery powered anchors to avoid the need for cabling altogether.
The result of a collaboration revealed in late 2019 between BlueIoT (subsidiary of Tsingoal), Huawei Technologies, China Mobile Research, and JD Logistics sees the combination of 5G and Bluetooth LE technology in an Industry 4.0 warehouse. The RTLS uses Bluetooth LE angle of arrival (AoA) signals to track tags in a system connected to indoor 5G picocells as part of a private network, which provides power and connectivity to nearby RTLS anchors. A similar indoor location system was demonstrated in October 2021 between TRUMPF and Deutsche Telekom, using Ultra Wideband (UWB) location based on the omlox standard (a standard for RTLS using an open interface designed to support compatibility between UWB and other systems). The positioning data collected by the omlox RTLS anchors, which would traditionally be connected via a fixed wired connection, is transmitted to the cloud over the localized 5G network, referred to as a campus network. The lack of cabling allowed for not only quicker deployment but faster adaptation, as moving the RTLS anchors was far easier which is especially important for rapidly changing workloads or short-term adaptation in industry. Omlox positioning data uses a standardized and openly available format which allows for tag and anchor devices from the many supported UWB RTLS providers to be used in the system. Further up the system stack, omlox middleware can be used to combine location data from multiple systems; data from UWB RTLS, outdoor Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) or barcode scanning systems used in unison can provide the most comprehensive overview of an asset workflow.
Other efforts to reduce installation costs have involved integration with existing infrastructure. Smart lighting companies, such as Cooper Lighting, and many wireless networking companies are finding innovative ways to integrate RTLS compatibility into their products, often using pre-existing hardware with Bluetooth capabilities and established networking. Mist Systems and Aruba Networks have long included Bluetooth integration as a feature in their Wi-Fi networking platforms, with Cisco’s alternative, DNA spaces, launching in late 2019. Bluetooth LE technology already present in Wi-Fi access point can be leveraged as anchors for RTLS and other location services. Customers wanting to use the service simply must pay a fee for the service to be enabled on the system. For DNA Spaces, this comes at a great benefit to both Cisco and their partners. Cisco can provide another service as part of their platform while vendors partnered with Cisco, such as Kontakt.io and Haltian, can benefit from the ease of adoption, shared platform, increased awareness of RTLS, and provide services, software and accompanying hardware, such as tags.
Reducing Barriers to Entry Increases Adoption
Companies outside of dedicated RTLS vendors and solutions providers can see these advancements in integration as a sign that the demand for RTLS is enough that offering a service, add-on, or software package which supports RTLS can be an effective differentiator or value-add, and that support for these systems is sufficiently easy to implement by leveraging existing infrastructure and ecosystems. Integrated RTLS has many benefits compared to a standalone deployment, as the reduced complexity of integrated systems results in them being both cheaper and faster to install and maintain. The greater flexibility provided opens up RTLS for different use cases where adaptation is needed.
Without the resources to adequately evaluate new technologies, Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) are often the most hesitant to adopt RTLS with not only the high risks associated with early adoption but as well with RTLS currently requiring large initial investment where adequate Time to Value (TTV) and Return on Investment (ROI) are not immediately apparent. Often, company level changes, as opposed to siloed solutions, are needed to prove useful. Flexible RTLS installations using preexisting networking allows for not only cheaper and faster systems installation but allows for companies to trial systems and adapt them to different use cases to drive additional ROI. RTLS should therefore be viewed as a feature of an existing network or one part of a wider digitization ecosystem. For example, in Industry 4.0 applications, RTLS is enabled by 5G or other connectivity standards but is also necessary to enable other parts of digitization such as precise automation, remote management, and digital twins.
Various enterprises are is reaching a point where the capabilities of real-time location systems are no longer being bought into question. However, the overall value proposition of the system, alongside deployment complexity and challenges with integration into existing networks, remain a key challenge. Solutions providers and RTLS vendors in general can benefit their business offerings by identifying where ROI can be found, situations where value is often hidden are common and can only be realized through successful case studies. RTLS suppliers should target more scalable, wider higher-level installations as opposed to siloed solutions to better provide and uncover value, convincing those in charge of company level decisions and conveying the technical nuances of RTLS being the primary issue to this level of adoption.
With the beginning of 5G private network rollouts, the industrial landscape should be expected to change. In the short-term the reliability, bandwidth, and security of 5G allows traditional RTLS to backhaul wirelessly (as has been seen). RTLS in the increasingly digitized industry enables further automation where precise positioning of assets is necessary to operate robotics and autonomous vehicles. Longer-term native 5G positioning solutions may compete with traditional RTLS in some cases, however, ABI Research believes 5G positioning will more likely complement existing RTLS technology deployments for the foreseeable future. For example, hybrid RTLS implementations that combine a low power wide-ranging technology (such as 5G positioning using existing infrastructure) for general tracking, which activates high precision positioning such as UWB RTLS in areas when needed, are likely to occur to provide more seamless indoor and outdoor level tracking.