Location, location, location... technologies under the microscope

The view from space and your pocket

Analysis It was 40 years ago that the first experimental Block-I GPS satellite was launched to help test the viability of a global positioning system.

In December this year, the US Air Force is planning to launch the first GPS III satellite, to “augment the current constellation of 31 operational GPS satellites,” around the globe. It’s a great feat of engineering, and something that today we tend to take for granted.

Almost every mobile phone now has GPS technology built-in but while this may have revolutionized the mobile maps industry, has it transformed other industries? While everything from healthcare to retail, manufacturing and construction can claim that location-based services are impacting their worlds, not everything is reliant on GPS. When it comes to business, in particular the management and tracking of goods and customer engagement, GPS is not the only and not always the best technology to use.

So, what is? We’ve picked out four technologies to see how they are shaping up when it comes to delivering location-based services, whether in the outside world or in shops, factories and homes.

GPS

It’s not just about Google maps and finding a local restaurant. GPS is probably the best macro-tracking technology around for commercial use. This is thanks, in some small part, to US President Bill Clinton, who issued a policy directive to descramble the signal and dramatically improve its accuracy for the general public.

GPS is a navigation system that relies on a network of some 30 satellites plus ground stations, and receivers. A receiver on a device calculates its position by working out its distance from the satellites using a process called trilateration.

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To date, many of the main commercial applications have been in wide area tracking. GPS tracking of cars, for example, in fleet management, or athlete and player tracking in sports.

Today NASA is using GPS to help weather forecasters warn of flash floods, while Three Square Market, a Wisconsin-based technology company famous for microchipping willing employees is planning to launch a chip, powered by body heat with GPS technology and voice recognition. The aim is to use the hardware for tracking dementia patients.

GPS might be one of the most recognizable location technologies, but it has limitations. One is that it operates on a relatively large scale, making it in appropriate for more micro-level tracking say, in a retail or an industrial setting: GPS has horizontal positional accuracy with a single receiver of between about five to 10 metres 95 per cent of the time and 15 to 20 metres 95 per cent of the time for vertical.

Also, because of its use of wide-area communications, GPS relies upon having a good view of the sky to stay in contact its network. It’s, therefore, of relatively little use inside buildings away from windows, underground, or underwater – the first two meaning it will struggle in manufacturing or retail scenarios. Cities with tall buildings and forests are also a problem for GPS.

Beacons

The short-range wireless technology Bluetooth is 20 years old this year and is now on its fifth standard. Bluetooth 5.0 promises to transform beacon technology, at least when compatible beacons and devices are more readily available. Bluetooth beacons pretty live up to their name: they are transmitters that send out a unique identifier.

Receivers – typically smartphones – pass these ID codes to apps so that the software can immediately work out where you are, as each identifier is associated with a physical point on the map. Retailers can put them around stores so if you've got a compatible app installed, and Bluetooth on, you can be associated with specific types of products and targeted for ads, vouchers, offers, and so on.

Version 5.0 boasts double the data rate speed of its predecessor (it’s now 2Mbps) and has a maximum range of 800 metres (line of sight required), compared to the more limiting 50 metres outdoor range (10m indoors) of version 4.2. While this probably isn’t an advantage, as range is an inhibitor to accuracy and precision, it’s an indication of how the Bluetooth SIG is thinking.

It is clearly pushing the technology more towards IoT and industrial IoT-type applications, where there will be significant advantages for beacons, in reduced power consumption and data speeds. There are also some studies looking at triangulation to improve accuracy, even at range. However, until 5.0 gets a foothold, most current beacons will continue using Bluetooth 4.0. According to the latest Bluetooth Market Update, the shipment of Bluetooth beacons will reach 400 million by 2022, and with nearly four billion Bluetooth devices forecast to ship in 2018 alone, the future looks bright for beacons.

The technology to date is predominantly found in retail, although applications for bus stop information, tracking luggage and smarts homes are increasing. Apple launched its iBeacon back in 2013, installing the technology in over 250 Apple stores globally. Since then, beacons have found their way into many outlets including Macy’s and Walgreens, as stores look to gain competitive advantage and personalise marketing. This is the key driver. According to a report from BIA/Kelsey, location-based ad sales are predicted to grow to $32.4bn by 2021.

Despite the fillip from Apple, challenges remain, and rollouts must be approached thoughtfully. Their effective range can compromised – signals can be blocked by physical objects and reflections – while trying to compensate by putting “too many” beacons together can produce a cloud that will produce signal noise and reduce accuracy. Beacons must be placed carefully and calibrated for accuracy.




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