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 asset tags and a smartphone or a bluetooth gateway you can track assets in real time, indoors and outdoors. Depending on your assets management needs and budget, asset tracking can be automatic (no human participation required), or semi-automatic (involves participation of an employee with a smartphone). Regardless of which bluetooth asset tracking method you choose, it will be significantly 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 brough 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 other 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 the asset tracking:
- Bluetooth asset tracking comes with multiple options. You have choices of an automated asset tracking with BLE beacon tags and gateways, or a semi-automated bluetooth asset tracking that requires a human with a smartphone. You can use a smartphone for the continuous monitoring of the GPS location of the assets tagged with BLE beacon tags. Alternatively you can use an assets management mobile application for the bulk assets scanning and processing asset transactions with the human input. Which tracking scenario you select depends on your exact requirements, but bluetooth asset tracking gives you many options to choose from.
- Use a smartphone or tablet for the 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.
- Use 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 specifically for the asset tracking.
- 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 Asset Tracking vs RFID Asset Tracking
Bluetooth and RFID asset tracking is somewhat similar. Both technologies use a tag that advertises asset ID, and readers / gateways to transfer this information to the backend cloud or local network asset management software for processing.
If you compare bluetooth asset tracking with RFID, BLE beacons are similar to the active RFID tags, and bluetooth receivers are similar to RFID readers.
The difference is that Bluetooth signals can be read by iOS and android smartphones, while RFID systems require designated scanners or fixed RFID readers. It is much easier for the company employees to work with the devices that they are familiar with and use every day. Ability to use smartphones and tablets as BLE beacon receivers accellerates assets management system adoption, and also makes the overall cost significantly lower than the cost of RFID asset tracking.
Bluetooth Asset Tracking vs GPS Asset Tracking
GPS asset tracking is designed for the outdoor heavy and expensive equipment, for which you always know the current equipment location and the path. The tracking is completely automatic - a GPS tag attached to the asset periodically sends its location to the cloud system for processing. To achieve the same effect with the BLE beacon tags you either need a person with a smartphone and an asset tracking mobile application running in the background, or multiple gateways. Gateways are usually not feasible in the field conditions.
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.
How Does Bluetooth Asset Tracking Work?
Bluetooth asset tracking uses wireless communication between the BLE beacon tags on the assets and a bluetooth enabled device (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 assets tracking is that you can design the whole system in several different ways depending on your needs and budget. You can create 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 receivers. You can combine QR code / barcode scanning with the bluetooth beacons. Finally, you can use existing bluetooth mesh network to transmit assets location to the cloud.
Automatic Asset Tracking Using BLE Beacon Tags And Bluetooth Receivers
If you need to track assets automatically without a human participation your asset tracking system design should include bluetooth beacon tags and fixed mounted bluetooth receivers. In this design bluetooth receivers are constantly scanning for the nearby beacons (BLE beacon tags on the assets), and transmit detected asset ID and distance between the asset and a receiver to the assets tracking cloud software. A software calculates assets location based on the proximity to several BLE receivers (triangulation) and displays current asset location on the facilities floor map.
Each bluetooth receiver should be connected to the wifi and be capable of transmitting assets data to the backend asset tracking 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 the connected IoT 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 assets location data to the backend assets management 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.
Automatic Asset Tracking With BLE Beacon Tags And Smartphones (Outdoors)
If installing hard-wired receivers or mesh is not practical or warranted, another approach is to use smartphones in your employees pockets as bluetooth receivers / gateways. This approach works well for the field asset tracking where installing an IoT network of the hard-wired bluetooth receivers is not an option.
With this approach company employees do not need to take any active actions, such as assets scanning. They just need to have a smartphone with the asset tracking mobile application running in the background. A mobile application will detect a message sent by a BLE beacon tag and transmit all necessary information to the cloud.
For the smartphone asset tracking 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 location is not available, the asset tracking system design becomes more complicated.
Automatic 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 an asset tracking mobile application to determine the phone location without GPS.
An asset tracking 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
If your assets are already labeled with the QR codes and you do not want to re-label them with the BLE beacon tags, you can still have a real-time map of the assets location using stationary 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, an asset tracking mobile application will determine the scan location using nearby BLE beacons.
This is the least expensive and the easiest to implement indoors asset tracking design. If you do need to track assets within a facility and 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 BLE beacon tags to the assets and migrate to the automatic asset tracking solution over time.
Bluetooth Asset Tracking With A Smartphone And Bulk Scanning
In some cases you may not need the continuous mapping of the assets. You just need to know where the asset is now, which project it is used on, who checked it out last, an asset chain of custody history, the record of maintenance and repairs, etc. For this situation you do not need any hardware except for BLE beacon tags for the assets, and a smartphone with an asset tracking application that supports bluetooth.
The asset tracking mobile application in this scenario will work somewhat similar to the barcode / QR code scanning asset tracking applications. An employee scans assets that are received in the warehouse, sent to the job site, returned, rented out, checked out by an employee, etc. with a smartphone, selects locations, enters relevant information in the mobile application and submits a transaction. The transaction data are sent to the backend assets management software for processing.
The big difference between the QR code and bluetooth asset tracking is that with the BLE beacon tags an employee does not need to scan each individual asset. Instead, he just clicks a button in the mobile application to add all assets in the truck or on the pallet to the transaction. He does not need to physically reach each asset, find a QR code label and scan it. This capability makes a big difference in the assets transactions speed and employee's adoption of the asset tracking system.
Bluetooth Sensors: Assets And Equipment Conditions Monitoring
Ability to track assets location is not the only benefit you can get by applying BLE beacon tags to your 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 beacon tags with the sensors to the equipment allows you to not only track equipment location, but also monitor equipment conditions remotely.
You can set threshold values for the equipment conditions, and receive automatic alerts if any of the parameters reported by the BLE beacon 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 you need an asset tracking software that receives data from the BLE beacon tags and sensors, processes this information and produces human-readable results for your review. The results may include a map of the assets locations, history of the assets movement, a log of the employees who were handling an asset, a log of the equipment conditions, etc.
An asset tracking software should also include a mobile application that will allow a smartphone to work as a bluetooth gateway, transferring assets data to the cloud.
Depending on your exact needs, additional functionality and reports can be added to the software package.
Some vendors offer a bluetooth platform that includes bluetooth asset tracking software, mobile application and bluetooth hardware working together. These assets management platforms are designed for the specific scenario - for example asset tracking with the BLE beacon tags and fixed bluetooth receivers, asset tracking with the BLE beacon tags and a mobile application, monitoring equipment conditions with the BLE sensors, etc. However, you do not necessarily need to purchase both bluetooth hardware and bluetooth asset tracking software from the same vendor. Well defined bluetooth protocol and profiles allow asset management software 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 asset tracking, you may want to look at the bluetooth asset tracking technology. Bluetooth technology is rapidly evolving to make asset tracking more precise and less expensive, and offers various asset tracking 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.