As we approach 2023, we take a brief moment to reflect on the key trends we anticipate in real-time location systems (RTLS) in the year ahead.
1. The need for real-time location of people will be around for a while
Let us address this first. Unfortunately, the pandemic is not yet completely over and COVID-19 – and infectious respiratory diseases in general – are increasingly likely to be something we will need to live with and manage in the future.
In 2020, the need to reliably locate people (or more specifically locate them relative to each other), unexpectedly shot to the top of mind for many leaders in organizations as disparate as healthcare and transport, manufacturing and entertainment.
While we saw many organizations investigate RTLS to help maintain physical distances and contact-trace, most started with no-tech solutions. Many of those worked well; PPE, signage, process changes, and shutdowns play a vital role in containing transmission. But as the situation gets more nuanced – vaccinated Vs non-vaccinated people, tested Vs non-tested – coupled with the need to remain open and economically productive, those that invested in technological solutions find themselves at an advantage.
What we saw emerge in 2020 was a dichotomy between simple, single-purpose wearables and more sophisticated infrastructure-based approaches. Whilst many IoT and consumer product vendors are pushing COVID-19 wearables, we strongly advocate for the latter; infrastructure-based RTLS is not only much more accurate and reliable for contact-tracing purposes (including people-object-people transmission events), it opens up an important, wider conversation around worker safety.
The same technology can address multiple use cases for keeping employees safe; is a piece of equipment about to collide with a person? Is a worker in an unauthorized or dangerous space? Are all my workers safely accounted for in case of emergency? Those stuck in the trap of single-purpose wearables may get an alert if people are too close together, but not much else.
Prediction: we will see ‘contact-tracing’ and wearables evolve into a broader worker safety conversation in industrial spaces, with multiple and valuable use cases. These are already available to those forward thinking enough to take the infrastructure route now with little or no extra investment.
2. 5G deployments will accelerate the need for location systems, not replace them
5G private networks in industrial settings are becoming more common, for example, one is used at Daimler Hall 56. Many predict that this will accelerate in 2023. We don’t disagree.
However, high-performance location tracking from 5G infrastructure replacing traditional RTLS is unlikely. In the short- to medium-term, location tracking with 5G will be best suited to wide coverage areas were precision and accuracy are less important than speed and ease of deployment. Think indoor GPS.
The real value of 5G will therefore materialize in two ways that will increase the requirement for RTLS systems, not replace them.
Firstly, as complimentary tracking technologies. As an asset moves through an end-to-end process, often the area of coverage and required level of precision vary. For example, a part arriving in a factory may first need to be tracked in general terms (it arrived in the warehouse), but as it makes its way through the plant (it is on the forklift moving towards the assembly line), the level of precision required increases (it is in the workstation about to be fitted to a particular section of a product).
Whilst 5G can offer location tracking to support the first two stages, the accuracy required at the critical moment of assembly is something beyond current releases. Having visibility of asset location end-to-end across a campus will therefore be enabled by seamless integration of both 5G and RTLS.
And secondly, organizations implementing 5G private networks will benefit from the step-change in bandwidth, ultra-reliable low-latency and security, enabling accelerated adoption of smart, wireless devices throughout facilities, be it a hospital, factory or warehouse. Being able to manage, automate and control all these smart connected devices will require good location context.
Prediction: 5G will be an accelerator of RTLS adoption in the short- to medium-term as organizations free themselves from hardwired networks.
3. Cost of high-performance RTLS will continue to fall
Many RTLS use cases can add value, but sometimes not sufficient value relative to the investment required – this is more than just the cost of the RTLS system, it is taking everything into consideration including the installation, wiring, calibration and maintenance of systems.
There are multiple ways to lower the cost of RTLS today:
- Selecting technology that requires fewer sensors for the necessary level of accuracy (through improved coverage, range and reliability)
- Automating the set-up and calibration of systems (using lidar and sophisticated AI simulations) to reduce effort and time of installation
- Through vendors with continuous improvement of sensor design, reducing the cost of components and manufacture
- Use of multiple tracking technologies in the same device (ultra-wideband and Bluetooth or GPS) to avoid duplication of infrastructure
- Capitalizing on the roll-out of new networks to re-use infrastructure (such as 5G and WiFi 6)
- Selecting systems based on robustness for lower TCO (longer battery life, superior ingress protection)
Costs of RTLS have been reducing recently and careful selection of technology and vendors can further ensure TCO is maximized. However, at Ubisense we see improvements occurring in all the listed areas above in 2022. Combined, this promises a step-change in system costs that not only makes the ROI of traditional use cases much more convincing, but many new applications become possible with the potential to dramatically improve the way organizations operate, automate, and protect processes and critical assets.
Prediction: 2023 will see a continued lowering of system costs (and therefore increasing ROI).
4. RTK-GPS systems will proliferate
RTK-GPS has been around for some time, but only recently has it begun to become a force in industrial, and other, enterprises. First conceptualized in the 1980s, RTK-GPS allows for hyper-accurate GPS positioning through the use of a Base Station, usually with a range of around 1 km. This Base Station is static, has known coordinates, and therefore can be used to update the GPS signal reaching a “roving” tag with location-specific data. By accounting for many factors including clouds and obstacles, the usual inaccuracies associated with GPS tracking can be corrected, resulting in centimeter-level accuracy.
Traditionally used in the surveying industry, RTK-GPS is now growing into other industries, complimenting current RTLS systems with accurate outdoor positioning. Current applications can be found in transport depots, where RTK-GPS can help locate and organize the parking of and dispatch of vehicles across large outdoor areas. The technology will also find use cases in agricultural, military and aviation settings. The use of drone “swarms” are aided by RTK-GPS (for intricate light displays), and precise GPS locations could be relevant in future cities where large numbers of transport drones need to be tracked and kept apart. The possibilities of the technology are almost endless, and it will serve to compliment current, indoor RTLS systems, offering better tracking across varied industrial and manufacturing environments.
Prediction: RTK-GPS systems will proliferate in 2023-24, complimenting current RTLS systems.
5. Multi-modal tags/devices to become more commonplace
Due to systems like RTK-GPS and various indoor location systems (UWB/BLE/WiFi) finding use cases within single enterprises, Ubisense is seeing a growing need for multi-modal tags and devices. These tags and devices allow for signals to be received and relayed between various different types of RTLS system, allowing for a seamless experience between indoor and outdoor locations, as well as between different parts of production lines. While being cost effective for clients, and allowing them to pick and choose the systems that best suit their needs, it can also allow for a better “crowd sourcing” of data in certain scenarios, leading to improved data accuracy and reliability.
As an example, vehicles being repaired may arrive on a production line from separate storage locations. These vehicles can be tracked to ensure any deviation from plan is factored into the production line – this would include any issues arising in outdoor locations between storage and production. Once a vehicle has completed its repair cycle, its precise location can then be tracked as it moves back out into storage or offsite. Multi-modal tags have essentially allowed for a seamless expansion of a standard RTLS system – new location, same tags.
And finally, a wish masquerading as a sneaky sixth prediction…
We’ll finally stop measuring location systems in terms of ‘accuracy’, and instead focus on the much more important attribute of reliability. After nearly two decades of developing ultra-wideband location systems, we can locate Dimension4 tags to within millimeters of their actual location. In the lab. But we know people don’t usually track objects in a lab (with the possible exception of some biotech companies). They track things in the real world; in hospitals, assembly plants, transit yards, warehouses.
In those nearly two decades, we rarely see applications that need millimeter precision (with a possible exception of torque sequence control for critical fastenings that we provide by combining vision systems). What we do see is a requirement for reliability of location accuracy. That is the proportion of times the location measurement is correct. That is why we created Dimension4 to the be the most reliable.
A system that works when people are moving, or walls are present, or equipment is turned on. When signals get blocked, or reflected, or distorted. Is the doctor actually stood in front of the right patient? Is the tool definitely working on the correct product? Is the AGV really safe to continue on its path?
For critical processes, defining location problems by the level of confidence and reliability required from location measurements (and not solely by accuracy) is much more important.
Prediction: the value of location solutions will finally be defined by its reliability, not just how accurately it performs in a lab. Or maybe a vendor with enough experience of high-performance systems will refine it to the point of millimeter accuracy out in the real-world and put the debate on ‘accuracy’ to bed once and for all….