As we start 2021, we take a brief moment to reflect on the key trends we anticipate in real-time location systems (RTLS) in the year ahead.

The need for real-time location of people will be around for a while

Let us address this first.  Unfortunately, as we enter the new year, the pandemic is not yet over (happy new year?) and COVID-19 – and infectious respiratory diseases in general – are increasingly likely to be something we will need to live with and manage in the future.

In 2020, the need to reliably locate people (or more specifically locate them relative to each other), unexpectedly shot to the top of mind for many leaders in organizations as disparate as healthcare and transport, manufacturing and entertainment.

While we saw many organizations investigate RTLS to help maintain physical distances and contact-trace, most started with no-tech solutions.  Many of those worked well; PPE, signage, process changes, and shutdowns play a vital role in containing transmission. But as the situation gets more nuanced – vaccinated Vs non-vaccinated people, tested Vs non-tested – coupled with the need to remain open and economically productive, those that invested in technological solutions find themselves at an advantage.

What we saw emerge in 2020 was a dichotomy between simple, single-purpose wearables and more sophisticated infrastructure-based approaches.  Whilst many IoT and consumer product vendors are pushing COVID-19 wearables at CES 2021, we strongly advocate for the latter; infrastructure-based RTLS is not only much more accurate and reliable for contact-tracing purposes (including people-object-people transmission events), it opens up an important, wider conversation around worker safety.

The same technology can address multiple use cases for keeping employees safe; is a piece of equipment about to collide with a person? Is a worker in an unauthorized or dangerous space? Are all my workers safely accounted for in case of emergency?  Those stuck in the trap of single-purpose wearables may get an alert if people are too close together, but not much else.

Prediction: 2021 will see ‘contact-tracing’ and wearables evolve into a broader worker safety conversation in industrial spaces, with multiple and valuable use cases.  Happily, already available to those forward thinking enough to take the infrastructure route in 2020 with little or no extra investment.

5G deployments will accelerate the need for location systems, not replace them

We’ve already started seeing some roll out of 5G private networks in industrial settings, for example at Daimler Hall 56, and many predict that will accelerate in 2021. We don’t disagree.

However, where we do deviate from some of the hype is concerning the promise of high-performance location tracking baked into the 5G infrastructure replacing traditional RTLS. In the short- to medium-term, location tracking with 5G will be best suited to wide coverage areas were precision and accuracy are less important than speed and ease of deployment.  Think indoor GPS.

The real value of 5G will therefore materialize in two ways that will increase the requirement for RTLS systems, not replace them.

Firstly, as complimentary tracking technologies. As an asset moves through an end-to-end process, often the area of coverage and required level of precision vary.  For example, a part arriving in a factory may first need to be tracked in general terms (it arrived in the warehouse), but as it makes its way through the plant (it is on the forklift moving towards the assembly line), the level of precision required increases (it is in the workstation about to be fitted to a particular section of a product).

Whilst 5G can offer location tracking to support the first two stages, the accuracy required at the critical moment of assembly is something beyond current releases.  Having visibility of asset location end-to-end across a campus will therefore be enabled by seamless integration of both 5G and RTLS.

And secondly, organizations implementing 5G private networks will benefit from the step-change in bandwidth, ultra-reliable low-latency and security, enabling accelerated adoption of smart, wireless devices throughout facilities, be it a hospital, factory or warehouse.  Being able to manage, automate and control all these smart connected devices will require good location context.

Prediction:  5G will be an accelerator of RTLS adoption in the short- to medium-term as organizations free themselves from hardwired networks.

Cost of high-performance RTLS will continue to fall

Many RTLS use cases can add value, but sometimes not sufficient value relative to the investment required – this is more than just the cost of the RTLS system, it is taking everything into consideration including the installation, wiring, calibration and maintenance of systems.

There are multiple ways to lower the cost of RTLS today:

  • Selecting technology that requires fewer sensors for the necessary level of accuracy (through improved coverage, range and reliability)
  • Automating the set-up and calibration of systems (using lidar and sophisticated AI simulations) to reduce effort and time of installation
  • Through vendors with continuous improvement of sensor design, reducing the cost of components and manufacture
  • Use of multiple tracking technologies in the same device (ultra-wideband and Bluetooth or GPS) to avoid duplication of infrastructure
  • Capitalizing on the roll-out of new networks to re-use infrastructure (such as 5G and WiFi 6)
  • Selecting systems based on robustness for lower TCO (longer battery life, superior ingress protection)

Costs of RTLS have been reducing recently and careful selection of technology and vendors can further ensure TCO is maximized.  However, at Ubisense we see improvements occurring in all the listed areas above in 2021.  Combined, this promises a step-change in system costs that not only makes the ROI of traditional use cases much more convincing, but many new applications become possible with the potential to dramatically improve the way organizations operate, automate, and protect processes and critical assets.

Prediction: 2021 will be the year when multiple strands of cost reduction converge at the same time to have a significant impact on lowering system cost (and therefore increasing ROI). 

And finally, a wish masquerading as a sneaky fourth prediction…

We’ll finally stop measuring location systems in terms of ‘accuracy’, and instead focus on the much more important attribute of reliability. After nearly two decades of developing ultra-wideband location systems, we can locate Dimension4 tags to within millimeters of their actual location.  In the lab.  But we know people don’t usually track objects in a lab (with the possible exception of some biotech companies).  They track things in the real world; in hospitals, assembly plants, transit yards, warehouses.

In those nearly two decades, we rarely see applications that need millimeter precision (with a possible exception of torque sequence control for critical fastenings that we provide by combining vision systems).  What we do see is a requirement for reliability of location accuracy. That is the proportion of times the location measurement is correct. That is why we created Dimension4 to the be the most reliable.

A system that works when people are moving, or walls are present, or equipment is turned on.  When signals get blocked, or reflected, or distorted.  Is the doctor actually stood in front of the right patient? Is the tool definitely working on the correct product? Is the AGV really safe to continue on its path?

For critical processes, defining location problems by the level of confidence and reliability required from location measurements (and not solely by accuracy) is much more important.

Prediction: the value of location solutions will finally be defined by its reliability, not just how accurately it performs in a lab.  Or maybe a vendor with enough experience of high-performance systems will refine it to the point of millimeter accuracy out in the real-world and put the debate on ‘accuracy’ to bed once and for all….

Steven Manifold

Written by Steven Manifold, Chief Marketing Officer at Ubisense

Steven Manifold is Chief Marketing Officer of Ubisense.  Twenty years of marketing experience at both the bluest of blue chips and high growth SaaS companies has taught him that people value one thing; frictionless engagement with companies.  If you want to know more about Ubisense, the markets we operate in or the challenges we can solve, just email him directly: steven.manifold@ubisense.net