Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) Beacons For Assets And Equipment Tracking

How to track assets in real time using bluetooth beacons, bluetooth receivers, bluetooth tags and / or mobile devices (smartphones and tablets).

Bluetooth Asset Tracking: Internet of Things (IoT) For Monitoring Assets & Equipment


Bluetooth low energy (BLE) is developing fast and is gaining popularity in the industrial setting. One of the applications of BLE technology in the industry is asset tracking, equipment tracking and monitoring of equipment conditions.
Using bluetooth low energy beacons and / or receivers, bluetooth tags and / or mobile devices (smartphones or tablets running iOS or Android) you can track assets indoors and outdoors. Depending on your needs and budget, asset tracking can be automatic (no human participation required), or semi-automatic (involves participation of people with the smartphones). Regardless of which asset tracking method you choose, it will be significantly less expensive than using RFID technology.

 

bluetooth based asset tracking

What Are Bluetooth, Bluetooth Low Energy And Bluetooth Beacons

Bluetooth is a wireless communication standard that uses radio waves to exchange information between devices over a short distance. Originally bluetooth (now also called bluetooth classic to set it apart from bluetooth low energy) was designed for continuous data exchange. It works well for the consumer applications (such as streaming music) but is not very efficient or well-suited for the industrial settings, where devices need to exchange data periodically, and saving power / preserving battery life is important.

Bluetooth low energy (BLE), also known as Bluetooth Smart, was developed with this situation in mind. BLE devices exchange information periodically in the small packets to save power and remain in a sleep mode in between data exchange sessions. This design resulted in significant decrease in power consumption while preserving communication range of the bluetooth classic. Bluetooth low energy devices can run on a coin-cell battery for several years. Bluetooth low energy efficiency and multiple communication patterns (one to one, one to many in bluettoth beacons, many to many in bluettoth mesh) makes BLE devices ideal for the Internet of Things (IoT) applications.

Bluetooth low energy started the wide adoption of bluetooth technology in the "smart" connected devices, also referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT) (that is where Bluetooth Smart name is coming from). Specifically, in the industrial applications bluetooth low energy is rapidly gaining popularity due to its capabilities and lower cost as compared to the other technologies. Bluetooth industrial equipment and devices can be easily controlled from a smartphone. Readings and measurements can be automatically captured by mobile applications and transferred to the cloud for processing. Bluetooth sensors can provide automatic conditions monitoring and send alerts when conditions are out of range. Finally, bluetooth beacon technology allows for real-time assets location tracking which is significantly less expensive than the other active asset tracking technologies (commonly RFID for indoors applications and GPS for outdoors).

Bluetooth Beacons And Smartphones For Assets Tracking

In addition to the lower power consumption, bluetooth low energy brough new communication standards. Classic bluetooth was designed for information exchange between two connected (paired) devices (one-to-one connection). Bluetooth low energy also supports beacon technology (one-to-many connection), and mesh technology (many-to-many connection). In one to many communication model a bluetooth beacon advertises an information packet that other nearby bluetooth devices can scan for, read and process.

Bluetooth beacon technology enables bluetooth-based real time location systems (RTLS). If you compare bluetooth asset location tracking with RFID, bluetooth beacons are similar to the active RFID tags, and bluetooth receivers are similar to RFID readers.

The overall cost of bluetooth location tracking system is significantly lower than RFID. In addition to the lower tags cost, bluetooth signals can be read by iOS and android smartphones while RFID systems require designated scanners or fixed RFID readers.

How You Can Track Assets Using BLE Technology

The good thing about bluetooth based assets tracking is that you can design the whole system in several different ways depending on your needs and budget. You can create a system that will track assets indoors automatically without any human participation. You can reduce your cost and include employees with the smartphones in their pockets instead of fixed bluetooth receivers. You can combine QR code / barcode scanning with bluetooth beacons. Finally, you can use existing bluetooth mesh network to transmit asset location to the cloud.

Automatic Indoors Asset Tracking Using Bluetooth Tags (Beacons) And Bluetooth Receivers

If you need to track assets automatically as they move around, without a need for any human participation, your design should include bluetooth tags (beacons) on the assets and fixed mounted bluetooth receivers. In this design bluetooth receivers are constantly scanning for nearby beacons (bluetooth tags on the assets), and transmit detected asset ID and distance to the asset to the cloud. Cloud software calculates asset location based on the proximity to several receivers and displays location on the facilities floor map.

Each receiver should be connected to the wifi and be capable of transmitting the data it receives to the cloud software.

With the recent addition to the bluetooth low energy technology - bluetooth mesh - you do not need to deploy multiple bluetooth receivers connected to the internet. Bluetooth mesh is a network of connected bluetooth devices, with all devices being capable of communicating to each other (many-to-many communication). If you are using bluetooth mesh, each mesh node is capable of detecting a tagged asset and pass it along. You will need only one gateway for an entire mesh to pass collected data to the cloud.

The other good thing about bluetooth mesh is that you can use it for multiple purposes. For example, if you installed a bluetooth mesh for smart lighting, or for sensor network, you can use the same mesh for asset tracking.

Automatic Asset Tracking Using Bluetooth Tags And Smartphones

If installing hard-wired bluetooth receivers (or installing a bluetooth mesh) is not practical or warranted, another approach is to use smartphones in your employees pockets as bluetooth receivers. This approach works well for outdoors asset tracking, where installang hard-wired bluetooth receivers is not an option.

With bluetooth tags / mobile devices approach, your employees do not need to take any active actions (such as scanning assets when they relocate them), but they do need to have a smartphone with running mobile application on them. Mobile application running on a smartphone will detect a message sent by a bluetooth asset tag and transmit all necessary information (asset ID, distance to the asset and location of a mobile device) to the cloud software for processing.

If you are tracking assets outdoors, no other hardware is required - a smartphone can determine its own location using built-in GPS services. However, if you are tracking assets indoors and GPS tracking is not available, the design becomes more complicated. You will need to have stationary bluetooth beacons installed throughout the facility so that the mobile application could determine the phone location.

In the case of the mobile devices / mounted bluetooth beacons combination, the mobile application will need to collect information on asset tags / distance, as well as nearby beacons and distance, and send this information to the cloud software for calculating asset location.

This design, even with the fixed bluetooth beacons, is less expensive and easier to implement than bluetooth tags / fixed bluetooth receivers solution. The slight drawback is the requirement for all employees to carry mobile devices with the application running in background. However, it is also a positive factor - in addition to the asset location, you will also have information on who had been handling an asset when.

And if you need to track assets outdoors using bluetooth, this design is your best option.

Manual Asset Tracking Using QR Code / Barcode Scanning And Fixed Bluetooth Beacons

If your assets are already labeled with QR codes / barcodes and you do not want to invest time, money and effort to re-label them with bluetooth tags, you can still have a real-time map of assets location on the facilities floor using fixed bluetooth beacons.

This solution will require an employee to scan each asset with a smartphone when (s)he takes and relocates it. When an asset is scanned, a mobile application will determine the scan location using nearby bluetooth beacons.

This is the least expensive and easiest to implement design. If you do need to track assets within a facility, and be able to have a map of real time assets location, but want to approach asset tracking project gradually, this solution will be a good first step. You can then start adding bluetooth tags to the assets and migrate to the automatic tracking solution over time.

Bluetooth Sensors: Assets And Equipment Conditions Monitoring

Ability to track assets location is not the only benefit you can get by applying BLE tags to your assets and equipment. You can use bluetooth tags with sensors to measure environmental conditions, such as temperature, humidity, and light, as well as mechanical conditions, such as impact or vibration. Applying these tags to the equipment allows you to not only track equipment location, but also monitor equipment conditions remotely.

You can set a threshold values for each condition type, and receive automatic alerts if conditions go above or below a set threshold. This option allows you to detect and quickly act on any potential problems, preventing costly equipment breakdowns and failures.

Do We Need A Specific Software / Mobile Application To Implement Bluetooth Asset Tracking?

You do need a software that receives data from bluetooth hardware (tags, sensors, beacons), processes this information and produces a human-readable results for your review. The results may include a map of the current locations of the assets, history of the assets movement, a log of employees who were handling an asset, a log of equipment conditions, etc.

If your asset tracking / equipment monitoring design includes use of mobile devices (smartphones or tablets), a software package should also include a mobile application. The role of the mobile application is to act as a bluetooth receiver. Mobile application will scan for and read signals from the bluetooth tags, and in some situations - fixed bluetooth beacons, and send this information to the cloud software.

Depending on your exact needs, additional functionality and reports can be added to the software package.

Some vendors offer a bluetooth platform that includes both software and hardware working together. These platforms are designed for a very specific purpose / scenario (e.g. asset tracking with bluetooth tags and fixed bluetooth receivers, asset tracking with bluetooth tags and mobile application, monitoring equipment conditions, etc.). However, you do not necessarily need to purchase both hardware and software from the same vendor. Well defined bluetooth protocol and profiles allow software vendors to integrate with multiple bluetooth devices.

Just like with the other asset tracking technologies, it is always a good idea to check with the software vendor what hardware is supported.

Takeaways

If you need real-time assets location tracking but could not justify time and expense of the traditional real-time asset tracking systems, such as RFID or GPS location tracking, you may want to look at the bluetooth technology. Bluetooth technology is rapidly evolving to make assets tracking more precise and less expensive, and offers various options that can fit any company needs and budget.

Additional benefit of the bluetooth technology is that you can use bluetooth hardware infrastructure for more than one application. For example, you can use bluetooth tags with sensors to capture not only asset location, but its physical conditions as well. You can create a bluetooth mesh for automatic (smart) lighting, and use the same mesh for asset tracking.

As bluetooth technology develops, it makes more and more sense to adopt a "smart industry" concept for your company.


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