NETWORKING

  • 09/06/2017
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Location-Based Tech: NFC, WiFi, and BLE

A look at the wireless technologies used for location-based services.

Location-based services have changed how we manage our daily lives. They've revolutionized how we travel, track packages, and keep an eye on friends and family. In the corporate environment, knowledge gained from gathering and analyzing real-time location information on products, employees, customers, and IoT devices is becoming a vital business function.

Location-based services leverage wireless technologies that are used to collect location information at an increasingly granular level. In this article, I'll examine the top wireless location tracking technologies as well as common use case scenarios for businesses today.

Beyond GPS

When most of us think about location-tracking technologies, we tend to focus on the satellite-powered global positioning system (GPS) that's largely responsible for tracking us when we use things like Google Maps, Facebook Check-ins and the short-lived, but once hugely popular Pokémon GO. But despite the enormous global power of GPS, it has some shortcomings. These include the lack of pinpoint accuracy and the fact that GPS requires direct line of sight with multiple GPS satellites to use it. That means that if you want to track very specific locations, and have the ability to track indoors, you're out of luck.

Fortunately, other technologies that fill the void where GPS falls short for location-based services.

Near Field Communication (NFC)

NFC is a set of protocols used for close-proximity wireless communications between two devices. By close proximity, I mean two inches or less. A common use case is a form of electronic payment system using smartphones that contain an NFC-capable chip. Apple Pay and Android Pay are smartphone apps that use NFC technologies.

In addition, many businesses are using NFC as a low-cost way to track assets and manage inventory. The beauty of NFC is that it can utilize what are known as passive tags on the devices you wish to track. These low-cost tags (as little as a few cents each) are essentially stickers that can contain information to be read or can also have read/write functionality based on tag type. Economical NFC has become a more efficient replacement for bar-code scanning technologies that businesses have used in the past for tracking purposes.

WiFi

The same WiFi that we use to connect our mobile devices to networks is also an effective way of tracking the location of devices on a WLAN. Because WiFi has become so plentiful throughout buildings such as offices, airports and shopping malls, it's often used for indoor-location tracking of any device that can communicate using WiFi standards.

Since wireless access points are fixed devices, they monitor signal strength between themselves and the devices connected to them. By leveraging the information of two or more APs, a business can use trilateration to locate connected devices with relatively sufficient accuracy, as short as 30 feet on average. Location-based services that use WiFi are great for monitoring WiFi-capable devices such as customer smartphones that connect to guest networks in retail stores, hotels or other public environments. It also works well for monitoring locations of IoT devices that are somewhat mobile in nature, such as  WiFi-enabled infusion pumps within a hospital wing.

Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)

A popular alternative to WiFi for indoor location tracking is BLE. BLE is a more modern and effective approach that provides significantly increased location accuracy of smart devices that contain Bluetooth 4.0 capable chips. Bluetooth beacons are positioned throughout buildings that communicate with end devices and use signal proximity to pinpoint the location (as short as three feet) of devices within range of one or more beacons.

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(Image: VERSUSstudio/Shutterstock)

BLE is most commonly used to track customers as they navigate their way through retail stores. Because of the accuracy, retailers can acquire critical information as to what products and displays are most appealing to their customers based on where they walk and the amount of time spent looking at products in specific parts of the store. They're also commonly deployed in large hospital complexes to track patients and medical assets at a granular level. BLE beacons can be deployed on their own as a separate network that cohabitates with WiFi networks. But a more common approach these days is to simply deploy WiFi access points that contain integrated BLE beacons.

Location-based tech on the horizon

Beyond the location-based technologies available today, there are a couple new technologies on the horizon. Developed by Google, Visual Positioning Service (VPS) light waves collected by smartphone cameras provide location information based on the images received. The light signals are interpreted by the VPS mapping software on the smartphone to provide location information with remarkable accuracy. In a VPS demonstration, Google showed off the ability to find an exact item in a Lowes home improvement store. Business uses for this would primarily focus around augmented reality that would provide the user with real-time information based on what can be physically seen with a camera. The inclusion of specialized LED lighting in the physical world can enhance the functionality of such a technology.

The IEEE also recently proposed a new location-tracking technology using radio and ultrasonic frequencies to overcome line-of-sight limitations when tracking locations at a granular level. This research uses ultrasonic reflections to enhance location accuracy of tracked devices. Researchers of this technology state that uses could include health care, home and building automation.

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