Industry Insights

The State of Indoor Positioning and Asset Tracking Using BLE and LoRa

The emergence of devices with BLE + LoRa capabilities unlock new use cases for indoor positioning and asset tracking.

Duc-Quy Nguyen

The indoor positioning and asset tracking space remains the wild west despite many companies working towards developing a robust, cost-effective, scalable solution. BLE, WiFi, Ultra Wide Band, RFID, and Ultrasonic, to name a few, have been used in the past to develop Indoor Positioning and Asset Tracking solutions. With use cases spanning areas such as retail, hospital, and manufacturing, it is clear that the market potential is huge. So why has nobody quite “figured it out”? The one missing piece has been the ability to combine BLE + LoRa capabilities inside of a device.

Before we can dive into what BLE + LoRa paired together means for Indoor Positioning and Asset tracking we have to first understand some fundamentals.

What is BLE?

Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) is the low energy implementation of Bluetooth. BLE and Bluetooth both operate in the same 2.4 GHz ISM band and have the same effective range of approximately 330 feet. BLE however, cannot send as much data nor is it as responsive. These limitations imposed on devices using BLE are how devices are able to operate on a small battery for years. BLE is perfect for indoor positioning and asset tracking where low amounts of  data only need to be transferred periodically within a larger coverage area.

What is LoRa?

LoRa stands for “long radio radio” and it is the proprietary modulation format owned by Semtech. The hardware components SX1272 and SX1276 LoRa chips use is a modulation technique called Chirp Spread Spectrum (CSS) to make up the Physical (PHY) layer of an LPWAN technology stack. When combined with the LoRaWAN communication protocol, devices can achieve long range, low power communications. 

How is BLE Used for Indoor Positioning and Asset Tracking?

This is a simplified overview of how BLE works in Indoor Positioning and Asset Tracking.

Indoor positioning and asset tracking begins with three components: tags, beacons, and gateways. Tags are associated with the object of interest you wish to track and they emit signals. Beacons can be thought of as “listeners” or receivers. They scan for tags and measure the strength of the transmission signal from tags. Gateways communicate with beacons and relay the data collected to the cloud. This data is then processed using a position engine made up of various algorithms and filters. Following this step, you are able to open up mobile or web applications to locate your position/assets.

Challenges in Indoor Positioning and Asset Tracking Space

The challenges that exist in the indoor positioning and asset tracking space include installation, cost, and scale.

One challenge of an installation is determining the correct amount of hardware required for a given space. Even with a site survey, it is hard to fully test the indoor positioning and asset tracking solution without all the required hardware. Too much hardware leads to adding unnecessary redundancy and expenses to your solution. Not enough hardware can result in dead zones and a failed solution.

Besides hardware, indoor positioning and asset tracking solutions require the cooperation of the on-site IT team. The job of the IT team is to protect the network of the company. Every device that is connected to the network can introduce a new security vulnerability. IT teams have little incentive to work with IoT solution providers and everything to lose in the event of a breach on the network. If the IT team doesn't work effectively with the IoT solution provider, the installation will fail.  

In addition, as the spaces you wish to use indoor positioning and asset tracking on expands, the complexity and cost increases as well. What may have worked well in a small 400 square foot area can look and cost dramatically different compared to a 16,400 square foot warehouse. So what can we do about these challenges?

BLE + LoRa Devices Address Current Challenges

The emergence of development boards with BLE + LoRa devices on the market means a few things. First, there will be devices that collect data from tags and these same devices will also be able to relay information via LoRa to a central gateway. The range of one LoRa gateway can easily replace all previous access points required for an indoor positioning and asset tracking solution. BLE + LoRa capable devices reduce the need to make modifications on existing infrastructure, resulting in savings in time and money for the customer.

Imagine more coverage for indoor positioning and asset tracking deeper within a building at a fraction of the price you would have previously paid. This gateway would also be an alternative to relying on a customers network which may not always be reliable. IoT solution providers no longer have to worry about setting up networks with the IT department and the IT department doesn’t have to worry about introducing new vulnerabilities. With a LoRa network which continues to rapidly expand, connectivity and latency will not be an issue. Considering all these changes a BLE + LoRa device brings, the ROI of an indoor positioning and asset tracking solution becomes both apparent and appealing for customers. 

Summary:

The arrival of a BLE + LoRa capable device has been long overdue. BLE + LoRa capable devices reduce the number of variables which could result in an indoor positioning and asset tracking solution failing. The combination of devices with BLE and LoRa capabilities enables IoT solution providers to explore new use cases which require larger coverage areas. Price has always been a major pain point for companies deciding whether or not to invest in an indoor positioning and asset tracking solution and for good reason. After all, why would you invest in an expensive IoT project without the guarantee of its success and a measurable ROI for your business?

BLE + LoRa capable devices will significantly drive the price of end-to-end IoT solutions for indoor positioning and asset tracking down making them more accessible. The hardware infrastructure, time, and complexity required for an installation will be significantly reduced leading the way to easier installations. With an expanding LoRa network all over the world, connectivity will no longer be an issue. You won’t want to be late to the BLE + LoRa party.

TLDR; BLE + LoRa capable devices are going to be disruptive for the Indoor Positioning and Asset Tracking space. IoT solution providers no longer have to deal with IT departments, coverage/connectivity issues, infrastructure changes. The reduction in complexity of installations will enable IoT providers to deploy indoor positioning/asset tracking solutions rapidly and at a competitive price. 

Duc-Quy Nguyen

Systems Engineer

A former Laser Engineer, Quy loves to design and handle products & complex systems. His interest in technology began from his experience as a kid building a solar powered toy car. Outside of work, he enjoys learning, reading, and playing competitive Ultimate Frisbee.

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