Ultra-Wideband (UWB), Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi Real-Time Location System (RTLS) and ranging solutions are adapting Wi-Fi Access Points (APs) in order to minimize the need for costly infrastructure.
Out with Costly Infrastructure, in with Seamless Rollout
Leveraging existing networking infrastructure has been a key trend for Real-Time Location System (RTLS) solutions in recent years due to the costs of establishing, configuring, and maintaining both power and network connections across the area of a building. Prohibitive installations costs have remained a major barrier for RTLS adoption, so much so that in order to address the issue, collaboration between RTLS and enterprise Wi-Fi vendors has allowed for more cost-effective RTLS solutions leveraging comprehensive and ubiquitous Wi-Fi networks in order to reduce the buy-in associated with a RTLS. Within the diverse ecosystem of location technologies, many different approaches to implementing RTLS using Wi-Fi infrastructure have appeared.
Where Do Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and Ultra-Wideband Stand?
Most enterprise Wi-Fi Access Points (APs) contain Bluetooth radios that can be leveraged for Bluetooth RTLS, with many AP vendors, such as Cisco, Aruba, and Juniper, among others, offering solutions able to support Received Signal Strength Indication (RSSI)-based positioning. These solutions have shown to be an effective answer to asset tracking use cases across multiple verticals, while smartphone compatibility enables using Bluetooth RSSI for location tasks, such as indoor navigation or proximity-based alerts. The solution is not without its shortcomings, however. RSSI positioning provides limited accuracy, unsuitable for high-precision use cases and, perhaps more critically, the distribution and placement of Wi-Fi APs is often at odds with what is needed for Bluetooth beacon coverage. Suppling flexible and widespread positioning coverage in these systems requires additional beacons that are available either directly from Wi-Fi vendors, in the case of Aruba, or through a partner, in the case of Cisco marketplace, with vendors like Kontakt.io and AiRISTA Flow. This clash in infrastructure is likely to become a more acute issue as newer Bluetooth positioning techniques, such as Bluetooth Angle of Arrival (AoA), standardized in version 5.1, become more prevalent.
Native technology solutions using Wi-Fi for positioning has a legacy in RTLS and indoor location, finding success in healthcare, retail, and hospitality applications. However, these have broadly been unable to diversify and attain much scale due to expensive hardware, limited precision, and higher than desired power usage—all limiting the value of Wi-Fi RTLS over high-volumes.
Improvements to the existing Wi-Fi location techniques, such as Round Trip Time (RTT) have also been specified in IEEE 802.11mc, with sparse support within the ecosystem; however, notable exceptions are Cisco and Apple. In order to compensate for the limited AP support, beginning in Android 12, support for one-sided RTT has also been introduced, allowing for devices to calculate RTT distances on any AP at the cost of accuracy. The overall effectiveness of one-way RTT is typically between 3 meters and 5 meters based on lab tests. Android devices from Zebra also support Wi-Fi RTT, allowing for accurate Wi-Fi location in industrial settings, such as manufacturing or logistics. The 802.11az amendment, which builds on the existing RTT methods, is also nearing finalization so that next-generation Wi-Fi positioning solutions could support sub-meter positioning accuracy, better multi-path performance, and reduced data overhead for better scalability.
UWB, another popular RTLS technology, has also seen attempts at inclusion within the AP ecosystem. In 2019, Cisco and Sewio launched a combined Wi-Fi AP and UWB anchor. Wipelot, in combination with Cisco, launched EagleEye, a UWB dongle able to provide UWB RTLS on top of Cisco infrastructure. Huawei’s Wi-Fi 6 APs contain support for internal expansion slots for Internet of Things (IoT) devices, partnering with vendors like Ubudu and Woxu Wireless to provide UWB RTLS modules, the latter successfully deploying the technology in a variety of locations, such as banks and power plants.
Reducing RTLS Rollout Cost and Complexity
With use cases for RTLS emerging in areas like smart offices and retail, alongside increasing interest in verticals like healthcare, logistics, and industry, enterprise Wi-Fi vendors are providing their own location services and offerings in order to capitalize. Efforts from Cisco Spaces are moving toward building an IoT ecosystem where location can be supplied by multiple third parties and Aruba’s first-party support extends not only to standalone infrastructure and Wi-Fi RTT, but also the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) to aid with configuring devices. Pushing for more location support using Wi-Fi, either by expanding RTT support or encouraging other solutions to leverage the available connectivity, will be the key decision to furthering Wi-Fi’s place in the RTLS ecosystem. Wi-Fi vendors should look at location as a key differentiator for their products.
It’s important to remember, in these cases, that leveraging Wi-Fi is not a one-size-fits-all solution for RTLS infrastructure. Bluetooth-based solutions, which ABI Research expects to be the most widely deployed technology, will require additional infrastructure, especially if newer location standards, such as AoA, are involved. Alongside this, while multipurpose infrastructure and enterprises are trying to move away from siloed solutions, standalone Bluetooth beacon solutions may prove more economical right now due to the costs of Wi-Fi software licenses. For example, Cisco Spaces is designed to provide additional features beyond location, and ongoing backlog associated with Wi-Fi hardware could pose other rollout challenges. Other wireless infrastructure vendors are also taking note: support for RTLS, either natively or as a means of connectivity, is common in private 5G deployments; smart lighting solutions like that from Cooper Lighting can provide usable infrastructure; and Low-Power Wide Area Networks (LPWANs) are integrating location as a key component of IoT with solutions like Semtech Cloud, including support for Bluetooth for indoor positioning.
The scalability of RTLS solutions is, and will continue to be, a major roadblock to adoption of the technology. However, RTLS vendors are developing new methods to reduce the costs and complexity of installations with the goal of encouraging adoption. Reducing the configuration needed when deploying infrastructure enables enterprises to deploy RTLS faster, more flexibly, and with less need for engineering experts. Solutions like Ubisense’s new configuration tool, Aruba’s self-locating APs, and Pointr’s tool for automatically generating Three-Dimensional (3D) maps from floorplans are all unique selling points that can be leveraged to encourage new customers. Lower device costs will be driven by economies of scale with interoperability and standardization of technologies to create a diverse ecosystem of compatible devices. Flexible monetization options, such as service and subscription models, will provide enterprises more flexibility in budgeting for expensive RTLS solutions and less siloed solutions will be able to address multiple RTLS use cases by providing Return on Investment (ROI) through multiple streams. All of this should be encouraged by a shift toward selling targeted solutions, i.e., marketing an asset tracking and collision detection system as opposed to simply RTLS.