6 Technologies That Can be Used to Track Location

Amanda Darcey /

Back in 2015, we wrote a much-shared location technologies whitepaper comparing popular ways to track people and assets. Our conclusion: there is no clear “winner” of the indoor location tracking game, rather the location solution you apply should be based on your unique application and requirements (i.e., tracking accuracy, budget/infrastructure, security, etc.).

Our position on that has not changed dramatically but, as always, technology has continued to march forward. GPS accuracy is increasing, Bluetooth beacons will soon be capable of larger data transfer and the use of mobile in the workplace continues to climb. This post summarizes some of these advancements and how they have impacted our opinion of indoor location technologies, specifically as they relate to people tracking and workforce management.

INFOGRAPHIC: Comparison of location technologies

Infographic: Comparison Of 6 Technologies That Track Location

Without asking you to conduct a side-by-side comparison of the 2015 evaluation to day, here are some of the notable updates presented in our analysis:

GPS still tops the list in Accessibility and Cost but Accuracy is improving too

In the era of Google Maps, even the cheapest of smartphones have decent GPS chips. And you’d be hard pressed to find a place on earth where there is no GPS coverage. If you’ve used GPS-maps in remote locations, you might notice that GPS can still work (with limited accuracy) even when cellular connections are limited.

GPS infrastructure is GREAT and it’s getting even better. Thanks to a newer satellite broadcast and mass-market chips that can pinpoint accuracy to within 30 centimeters (approx. one foot), smartphone GPS is about to start getting much more accurate. Importantly, this improvement will make a big difference in cities and high-density locations where reflection off of and within buildings has limited GPS practicality for indoor tracking purposes.

There are two big caveats in this that caused us to leave the Accuracy rating at 3:

  1. It isn’t available yet. Broadcomm says its chips will end up in some phones next year and that won’t include iPhones

  2. Even if BroadComm rolls out next year, Qualcomm is the largest GPS chip manufacturer and will likely have to release their version before the majority of smartphones have this (probably sometime next year)

However, the technology exists, and these improvements are inevitable. GPS is already the solution we recommend most for outdoor tracking, vehicle patrol or “roaming” use cases where simple attendance is the main requirement for tracking. Within the next couple years, we should see GPS accuracy indoors and in cities get much better. And since device batteries are also becoming more powerful, GPS will increasingly become the cheapest, most ubiquitous option for all kinds of passive people tracking.

Advances in Bluetooth

The Bluetooth Special Interest Group has officially adopted the Bluetooth 5 standard and made it available to manufacturers to use in devices - including mobile devices and Bluetooth beacons. Bluetooth 5 has 4x the range, 2x the speed and 8x the broadcast message capacity . We discussed in another post the implications of Bluetooth 5 on smart buildings and asset tracking, but it impacts tracking applications as well.

The increased broadcast message capacity improves the effectiveness of Bluetooth beacons for safety and emergency management tracking applications. In instances where data connectivity is a challenge (i.e. underground mines, labyrinthian buildings, etc.), the mesh network capability provided by the new Bluetooth standard presents the ability to send tracking data and distress alerts directly over Bluetooth.

Further, API research expects 19 Billion Bluetooth enabled devices will be installed by 2021. As these Bluetooth devices become more ubiquitous in smart buildings (beacons, lighting fixtures, WiFi access points), the cost of deploying a beacon infrastructure for indoor tracking will reduce.

Addition of QR codes to our analysis

This one is not so much a technology advancement as it is an addition to our previous guide of QR codes as a location tracking option.

Unlike these other location solutions we’ve discussed in the past, QR codes do not have passive (i.e. in the background) tracking capability. They are more like NFC in that they require a close proximity scan and, unlike NFC, actually require the user to open up an app or scanner to make that scan.

However, QR codes are CHEAP. They can be produced automatically and sold for the price of a sticker. And, importantly, QR scanners are as ubiquitous as mobile devices. Many devices come with built in QR scanning apps that can link to a URL if you do not have a custom app and other apps, like Lighthouse.io, come with built in QR scanners.

For cases where hundreds of tracking points may be required, such as building security or janitorial in large commercial office buildings, the ROI on Bluetooth beacons may not make sense but QR codes might. Further, for use cases where app download is a barrier, such as tenants or customers reporting issues (i.e. maintenance need or janitorial issue), QR codes can trigger actions back to guards or cleaners who DO have an app. In this second example, QR codes may be applied in concert with beacon tracking solutions to add value to the application.

Accessibility Improvements (almost across the board)

If we define accessibility based on the sender/receiver transmitter infrastructure, than half of the equation inevitably relies on the prevalence of smart devices in the workplace. Given continual increases in smartphone, tablet and even wearable adoption in the workplace, accessibility improvements are inevitable and apply broadly.

From 2014 - 2015 there was a 72% increase in enterprise mobile device adoption, and while statistics can lag behind a year or two, every indication is that this has continued to increase. According to a 2017 Geomarketing study, 75% of US adults now own a smartphone. Even more significant, 86% of respondents in a CCS insight survey cited regularly using mobile apps for work purposes.

Not only is the adoption of smart devices increasing, manufacturers are making and improving wearable devices (i.e. smart watches, bluetooth trackers) that support workforce management and tracking applications. Analysts are predicting a compound annual growth rate of 37% for wearable sales in the next 5 years and manufacturers are responding. Samsung released their Gear3 smartwatch this year and are actively targeting workforce applications. The new Apple watch is equipped with it’s own LTE, meaning it can now operate as a standalone device (rather than a 2nd screen for your smartphone). These devices may be more practical in many workforce situations by allowing tracking applications, alerts and apps without the “distraction” of the phone or tablet.

The accessibility increase is not limited to the proliferation of smart devices. Just as GPS infrastructure is improving so is building connectivity for tracking applications. Most shopping malls and airports in the US either already have or are rolling out free public WiFi networks. And the big manufacturers of these access points, like Cisco’s Meraki devices, are building Bluetooth beacon capabilities directly into them. Bluetooth beacons are also appearing in new lighting technology and other connected devices (security systems, etc.).

You might notice that the only technology that didn’t see a bump in our evaluation is RFID. Certainly, the technology has not remained stagnant, and we do believe that RFID continues to play an important role for certain applications, especially inventory and SKU level tracking. The primary consideration with RFID is that there are a LOT of RFID systems and protocols out there and, importantly, the compatibility with mobile apps and devices is much less straightforward. Our partner, Kontakt.io, wrote an excellent comparison of RFID and BLE for real-time location tracking that includes some parameters on reader types, associated costs, and availability.

Conclusion

The age of the Internet of Things is no longer “dawning”, we are all living in it. I’d wager than 99% of our readers own a smartphone, possibly a tablet and maybe even a smartwatch or fitness tracker. Nearly all of us, would use at least 1 (probably far more) mobile apps in our daily work. And most, if not all of us, have at some point sacrificed our sense of privacy for the convenience or safety/security that location tracking in those apps provides.

As our reliance on devices increases and location technologies continue to improve, the mobile applications that exploit these technologies proliferate. While this post is in no way comprehensive of all those advancements, we hope we highlighted some of the more interesting changes in the last couple years. To learn more about Lighthouse.io and how we work with location technology to help workforces:

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Amanda Darcey

I deeply believe that really great experiences come from simple, intuitive products and great teams delivering them. That is why I am so excited to drive the growth of the Lighthouse.io product in US.