Bluetooth low energy (BLE) technology is developing fast and is gaining popularity for the asset tracking. BLE beacons are replacing more expensive asset tracking technologies like RFID or GPS.
Using BLE beacon tags and a smartphone or a bluetooth gateway you can track assets in real time, indoors and outdoors. Depending on your needs and budget you can implement a completely automated asset tracking using IoT gateways, or asset tracking that requires participation of the company employees with the smartphones. Regardless of which bluetooth asset tracking method you choose, it will give you more options and will be less expensive than using RFID or GPS asset tracking.
Bluetooth Low Energy And IoT: A Good Choice For Asset Tracking?Why BLE is replacing traditional IoT asset tracking technologies, such as RFID and GPS
Bluetooth low energy (BLE) started the wide adoption of the bluetooth technology in the "smart" connected devices, also referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT). Specifically, in the asset tracking applications BLE is rapidly gaining popularity due to its capabilities and lower cost as compared to the other IoT asset tracking technologies, such as RFID or GPS.
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 the continuous data exchange. It works well for the consumer applications but is not very efficient or well-suited for the industrial settings. In the industrial applications, such as asset tracking, IoT devices need to exchange data periodically. Saving power / preserving battery life of IoT devices and tags 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 a significant decrease in the power consumption while preserving communication range of the bluetooth classic. BLE devices can run on a coin-cell battery for several years.
In addition to the lower power consumption, bluetooth low energy brought new communication standards. Classic bluetooth was designed for information exchange between the two connected (paired) devices (one-to-one communication). Bluetooth low energy also supports beacon technology (one-to-many communication), and mesh technology (many-to-many communication). In the BLE one to many communication model a bluetooth beacon advertises an information packet that nearby bluetooth devices can scan for, read and process. In the many-to-many model BLE devices form a mesh, where each IoT device can communicate with all other devices in the range.
BLE power efficiency and multiple communication patterns (one to one, one to many in the bluetooth beacons, many to many in the bluetooth mesh) make BLE devices ideal for the IoT applications. One of such IoT applications is asset tracking.
Here is what makes bluetooth low energy a good choice for asset tracking:
- Bluetooth asset tracking comes with multiple options. Bluetooth technology gives you different asset tracking options to choose from. You can use BLE tags and IoT gateways for a completely automated asset tracking. You can track assets with a smartphone using BLE tags for the bulk scanning. You can use smartphones for automated tracking of assets GPS location. You can use a combination of BLE beacons and QR code scanning for asset tracking inside the building. Bluetooth asset tracking has an option for any type of business scenario and a budget.
- Using a smartphone or tablet for asset tracking. Devices that people use - smartphones, tablets, computers - have a native Bluetooth support. Company employees can use their own or company issued mobile devices for the asset tracking in the field or warehouse - no special hardware is required.
- Using existing IoT networks for asset tracking. If a building, warehouse or a factory has a Bluetooth mesh based IoT network - such as smart lighting system, HVAC appliances, building access system, etc. - the same IoT network can be used for the asset tracking. You can use existing infrastructure instead of installing a completely new hardware system.
- Automated asset tracking at a lower cost. BLE beacons technology gives you an automated asset tracking option at a lower cost than other IoT asset tracking technologies, such as RFID or GPS.
Bluetooth vs RFID For Asset Tracking
Bluetooth and RFID asset tracking systems are somewhat similar. Both technologies use a tag that advertises asset ID, and readers or gateways to transfer this information to the backend cloud software for processing and reporting.
If you compare bluetooth asset tracking with RFID, BLE beacons are similar to the active RFID tags, and bluetooth receivers are similar to the RFID readers.
The difference is that Bluetooth signals can be read by iOS and android smartphones, while an RFID asset tracking system requires designated scanners or fixed RFID gateways. It is much easier for the company employees to work with the devices that they are familiar with and use every day. An ability to use smartphones and tablets as Bluetooth readers accellerates software adoption, and also makes the overall cost of the asset tracking system significantly lower.
Bluetooth vs GPS For Asset Tracking
GPS asset tracking is designed for the outdoor equipment for which you want to know current GPS location and the path. The tracking is completely automatic - a GPS tag attached to the asset periodically sends its location to the cloud software system for processing. To achieve the same effect with the BLE beacon tags you need a person with a smartphone and an asset tracking mobile application running in the background.
The big drawback of GPS asset tracking as compared to the Bluetooth asset tracking is a significantly higher cost of the GPS tags, significantly higher cost of the monthly service, and bigger size of the GPS tags that makes them not suitable for the small equipment and tools. Therefore, it may be a good idea to use GPS asset tracking for the most valuable equipment, and BLE beacon tags for smaller equipment and tools used by the company employees.
How Does Bluetooth Asset Tracking Work?
Bluetooth asset tracking software systems use wireless communication between the BLE asset tags and a bluetooth enabled device (a gateway or a smartphone). A bluetooth gateway or a smartphone detects BLE beacon signal, reads advertised information and transmits it to the backend asset management software.
The good thing about the bluetooth asset tracking is that you can design the whole system in several different ways depending on your needs and budget. You can implement an asset tracking system that will work automatically without any human participation. You can reduce your cost and include employees with the smartphones instead of the fixed bluetooth gateways. You can combine QR code / barcode scanning with the bluetooth beacons. Finally, you can use existing bluetooth mesh IoT network to transmit assets location to the cloud software.
Here is an overview of the various Bluetooth asset tracking methods:
Automated Bluetooth Asset Tracking Using BLE Tags And IoT Gateways
If you want a completely automated asset tracking system without any human participation, the system should include bluetooth beacon tags, one or several bluetooth IoT gateways, and a backend cloud software. In this design a gateway is scanning for the nearby BLE asset tags at the preset time intervals, and transmits data to the backend cloud software for data processing. Modern bluetooth gateways include edge data processing capabilities. Edge data processing means that the gateway processes data locally, filters out redundant information, and batches the data before sending information to the remote cloud server. Edge IoT gateways significantly reduce the load on the cloud server and software.
Bluetooth IoT gateways can support wi-fi or cellular connection, and are available in the weather-proof casings to withstand harsh outdoor conditions. Modern Bluetooth gateways can detect BLE beacons at a distance of several hundred meters, up to a kilometer, in the open space.
IoT module of QR Inventory software comes with all necessary components for the automated IoT asset tracking. It includes BLE asset tags, a Bluetooth IoT gateway with edge data processing capabilities, and a cloud software for data processing and reporting.
Automated Bluetooth Asset Tracking Using BLE Mesh
The typical Bluetooth asset tracking system will require multiple gateways to cover the large areas, such as airports, hospitals, a factory floor, a large warehouse or a construction site. However, with the recent addition to the bluetooth low energy technology - bluetooth mesh - you do not need to deploy multiple bluetooth gateways connected to the internet. Bluetooth mesh is a network of the connected BLE devices, where all devices can communicate to each other (many-to-many communication). If you have a bluetooth mesh installed and operational, each mesh node is capable of detecting a BLE beacon tag and pass the information along. You will need only one bluetooth gateway for an entire BLE mesh IoT network to transmit collected data to the backend cloud software.
The good thing about the bluetooth mesh is that you can use it for multiple purposes. For example, if you installed a bluetooth mesh for the smart lighting, or for the IoT sensors network, you can use it for the asset tracking as well.
Automated Asset Tracking With BLE Beacon Tags And Smartphones (Outdoors)
If you want to track GPS location of the assets rather than assets location within the building or on the job site, you can use either GPS asset tags or BLE tags and a smartphone. Smartphones in your employees pockets function as IoT gateways. A smartphone with a BLE enabled asset tracking application can detect BLE tags and report asset identifiers and current GPS location to the backend cloud software. This approach works well for the field asset tracking where installing an IoT network of the hard-wired bluetooth gateways is not an option.
With this approach company employees do not need to take any active actions, such as scanning. They just need to have a smartphone in their pocket with the asset tracking mobile application running in the background.
A QR Mobile Data mobile forms software has an option for automated GPS asset tracking using BLE beacons and a smartphone.
Automated Asset Tracking With BLE Beacon Tags And A Smartphone (Indoors)
For automatic asset tracking indoors, where GPS signal is not available, you will need to have stationary BLE beacons installed throughout the facility. This will allow a mobile application to determine the phone location without GPS.
A mobile application will detect nearby BLE beacon tags on the assets, will determine the location based on the stationary BLE beacons signal, and send collected data to the backend cloud software.
Asset Tracking With The Fixed BLE Beacons And QR Code Scanning
You can redce an overall cost of the indoor asset tracking by using QR codes instead of BLE tags for the assets.
This solution will require an employee to scan a QR code with a smartphone when (s)he takes and relocates an asset. An asset tracking mobile application will determine the QR code scan location using nearby BLE beacons.
If you want to approach asset tracking project gradually this solution will be a good first step. After implementing a QR code scanning solution you can then start adding BLE beacon tags to the assets and gradually migrate to the automated asset tracking system.
Bluetooth Asset Tracking With A Smartphone And Bulk Scanning
Automated asset tracking allows you to track assets location without reliance on the company employees. However, in some situation location tracking is not enough. You may also want to know who checked out and returned an asset, which project it is used on, asset conditions on check out and return, allow for a free style notes, etc. If this is what you need, company employees need to participate in the process.
The good thing is that BLE tags and a smartphone make asset tracking very easy and straightforward for the company employees. A smartphone can detect all BLE tags in the vicinity, so a mobile application user does not need to locate and scan each individual item. One click of a button in the mobile application will bulk scan all assets that need to be relocated. A company employee can fill out all relevant information on a smartphone using a mobile form, and submit data to the backend cloud software in real time. The whole process will take less than a minute regardless of the number of assets in the transaction.
Bulk scanning capability makes a big difference in the transaction recording speed and employee's adoption of the asset tracking system.
A QR Inventory software gives you a bulk scanning option using BLE tags, as well as an option to use QR codes, barcodes or NFC tags. You can mix and match inventory and assets tags to achieve the best results for your business scenario and workflow.
Bluetooth Sensors: Assets And Equipment Conditions Monitoring
Ability to track location is not the only benefit you can get by applying BLE beacon tags to the assets and equipment. You can use BLE beacons with built-in sensors to measure environmental conditions, such as temperature, humidity, and light, as well as mechanical conditions, such as impact or vibration. Applying BLE tags with sensors to the equipment allows you to not only track equipment location, but also monitor assets conditions remotely.
You can set threshold values for the various conditions, and receive automatic alerts if any of the parameters reported by the BLE sensor go above or below a set threshold. These automatic notifications allow you to detect and quickly act on the potential problems, preventing costly equipment breakdowns and failures.
Bluetooth Asset Tracking Software And Mobile Application
In order to implement bluetooth asset tracking system you need an asset tracking software that receives data from the BLE beacon tags and sensors, processes this information and produces human-readable reports for your review. The reports may include a location map, a history of the assets movement, assets chain of custody, a temperature and humidity log, etc.
An asset tracking system may also include a mobile application that will allow a smartphone to work as a bluetooth gateway, transferring data to the backend cloud software.
Depending on your exact needs, additional functionality and reports can be added to the software package.
Many vendors offer a complete IoT asset tracking system that includes a cloud software, a mobile application and bluetooth hardware working together. However, you do not necessarily need to purchase bluetooth hardware and bluetooth asset tracking software from the same vendor. Well defined bluetooth protocol and profiles allow vendors to integrate their software with the bluetooth devices from the different providers.
Just like with the other asset tracking technologies, it is always a good idea to check with the software vendor which BLE hardware is supported.
Bluetooth Asset Tracking Takeaways
If you need a real time asset tracking but could not justify the time and expense of the traditional real time asset tracking systems, such as RFID or GPS, you may want to look at the bluetooth technology. Bluetooth low energy technology is rapidly evolving to make asset tracking more precise and less expensive, and offers various options that can fit any company needs and budget.
Additional benefit of the bluetooth asset tracking is that you can use a bluetooth hardware infrastructure for more than one application. For example, you can use BLE beacon tags with the BLE sensors to capture not only asset location, but its physical conditions as well. You can create a bluetooth mesh for the smart lighting, and also use it for the asset tracking.
As the bluetooth technology develops it makes more and more sense to adopt a "smart industry" concept for your company.