Before you add location services to your application or within your organization, you have to be able to answer “What is RTLS?” and “What does RTLS stand for?”.
RTLS stands for “real time location services.” The loose definition of RTLS technology is any type of system that provides you with the current location of a given object or individual. It tells you where your asset is right now. A relatively new technology, real time location services, was first used commercially in the 1990s by healthcare facilities in the United States. Since that time, technology has exploded and applications of this technology have grown tremendously.
At its core, you can define an RTLS system as one that is in place to identify or track machinery, automobiles, equipment, inventory, or even people in real time. As technology has grown, there has been a shift from indoor asset tracking, to outdoor asset tracking, to, now, a combination of both indoor/outdoor asset tracking.
Some RTLS solutions such as AirFinder take the location data one step farther by providing business intelligence around the data to determine usage or tracking of an asset over time, but the specific technology refers to determining where something is right now.
By using this RTLS technology, you can feed location information into a number workflows, including personnel and asset tracking, legal compliance, inventory management, and financial queries. Below, we’ll take a brief look into RTLS.
How does RTLS work?
Typically, RTLS works by attaching some kind of location tag to an item. As these tagged items move around, the tag sends signals to receivers that are fixed in the surrounding environment. The receivers then can figure out where these items are currently located and communicate that to the platform being used by the system.
This platform can be customized and tailored to the needs of the user. As receivers collect data, the platform makes that data usable. For example, certain platforms may offer interactive maps which show, in real time, where the asset that is being tracked is located.
There are many different types of RTLS technologies and RTLS companies offer different types of RTLS solutions.
Passive RFID systems are similar to those systems that stores use to prevent theft. The receivers send out radio signals. The tag, which is powered by electromagnetic energy from the reader, hears the signal and sends out its own signal, which the receiver takes in.
The major benefit of passive RFID systems has to do with the inexpensive tags being used. These can last forever if no damage is done to them since there is no battery. In addition, these passive RFID tags are smaller in size and generate little to no noise.
The maximum range from which receivers can get the signal from a tag is fifteen feet. Additionally, these readers are fairly expensive. Also, there may be confusion if two readers try to read the same tag or a reader tries to read two tags simultaneously.
Active Bluetooth-Based RTLS
Active RTLS tags communicate with receivers throughout a building. Those receivers then send that information to the cloud. They can use Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) tags to reduce system and operational costs and enable asset tracking. These systems can also offer sensor data in addition to just positioning data.
This is often the least expensive RTLS option which is great for small businesses looking to scale; however, if a user is looking for exact room accuracy, this option may not be as useful since Bluetooth signals can travel through walls. Additionally, many receivers may be needed for a high level of accuracy.
WiFI RTLS allows tags placed on objects to communicate with multiple access points via Wi-Fi signals. Based on the amount of time it takes for the signal to be received, the readers can locate the tag.
This is often one of the more accurate systems of RTLS—it is possible to get a location within a few feet. Additionally, this system can use the existing Wi-Fi network of a business. However, if these systems need to be serviced, the Wi-Fi system may need to be shut down, which is not an option in settings like hospitals. Furthermore, this is one of the more expensive and most power-consuming solutions.
In an Infrared RTLS system, the asset tag communicates via infrared ID signals which it gives off. That signal is then picked up by a receiver that is typically on the ceiling. As long as there is a visual path between the two, this method gives a highly accurate location.
Similar to Wi-Fi RTLS, an Infrared RTLS system is also expensive to install because of the sheer number of receivers that have to be installed since the light that is transmitted cannot go through walls and doors. Moreover, these tags generally have a shorter battery life than other alternatives.
Ultra Wide-Band RTLS (UWB)
Ultra-wide band RTLS solutions are the gold-standard in terms of location precision. It uses small, low-powered tags that transmit an ultra wide-band signal using a spark-gap-style transmitter. This instantaneous burst of energy creates a very wide signal and transmits across gigahertz of spectrum. This system is the most accurate of all RTLS solutions mentioned, but UWB systems can be very expensive.
Real-time location systems can be used for a number of enterprise applications. Consider the following situations:
- Construction companies or heavy equipment rental companies that need to know where equipment and tools are located.
- Large tech companies trying to figure out where test equipment is and where IT support people are on their campuses.
- Healthcare organizations and hospitals wanting to simplify the tracking and reporting of chain of custody for blood, organs, and surgical equipment that are shipped to and from the hospital for specific procedures, or healthcare RTLS solutions that need to track medical equipment within the hospital.
- Agricultural facilities wanting to track and monitor their equipment and livestock to ensure both safety and health.
- Manufacturing or distribution facilities and plants needing to track pallets to ensure their shipments are easily located in a warehouse for quality control purposes.
- Hotels and hospitality organizations that want to track the safety of their personnel and identify immediately those who need assistance.
Finding Your RTLS Solution
As you can see, there’s a tradeoff for each of these solutions and applications of use cases. Different RTLS technologies can answer use cases in different ways, at different price points, and with different system complexities—so you need to focus on what you’ll actually be using a real-time location solution for.
Therefore, it’s critical to be realistic about your application-level expectations. You’ll want to consider the outcomes you’re trying to power with location before you acquire a technology.
No matter what the problem is, RTLS offers tailored solutions that offer just the right precision for you and your business.
We’re here to help answer any additional questions you may have about RTLS technology and how asset tracking may work best for you.