BLE as a gamechanger in asset tracking

Bluetooth Low Energy, combined with LPWAN, will revolutionize the industry and will leave its mark on asset tracking.

Author: Kristoff Van Rattinghe – CEO Sensolus

In this blog post, we’ll look at the power of Bluetooth in an industrial context. More specifically, how Bluetooth Low Energy impacts the management of non-powered assets like Returnable Transport Packaging (RTP). We explain the key advantages of having Bluetooth Low Energy as a core technology in combination with LPWAN and how this standard will revolutionize the industry.

Bluetooth has been around for two decades. In these two decades, it has become extremely useful to all of us. We use it to connect our smartphones to our car, to play our favorite music on Bluetooth speakers or to find our keys with a Bluetooth key finder. The options are endless. A recent market update report announced that up to 1.4 billion Bluetooth devices will be shipped in 2019. Bluetooth did not only enter our daily life, but it also succeeded in taking a leading position in different industries and is undeniably a game-changer for non-powered asset tracking.

Simple, low-cost, accurate indoor positioning

When introducing traceability to Returnable Transport Packaging (such as specific boxes, pallets or jigs), each of our customers faces the issue of combining indoor and outdoor positioning. Outdoors GPS is a perfect technology, since it is accurate on a meter level and does not require any additional infrastructure. However, accurate indoor positioning remains a challenge. Moveover, customers prefer not to install expensive infrastructure which requires wiring, calibration or maintenance. The optimal solution seamlessly integrates indoor and outdoor tracking. This is exactly where Bluetooth, more specifically the low-energy variant called Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), kicks in.

Let us explain how it works:

Imagine you have a production plant. In this case we would advise you to create different indoor zones. In this way, you know at all times where your assets are. Are they in the production line? Are they in a stock zone? Or are they ready for shipment? Once you discreetly define the zones that are relevant to you, you can easily find your assets. More importantly, you get insights you can act upon in your process flows. Therefore, Sensolus offers Bluetooth geobeacons. These are small, wireless devices with only one purpose: beaconing. Similar to a lighthouse, they periodically send a Bluetooth signal, which denotes the specific zone of interest. Once an asset is equipped with Sensolus tracking devices, it will automatically pick up the beacon signal when entering one of the zones you defined earlier on. Thus, the location of your assets is known.

Furthermore, a Bluetooth geobeacon is surprisingly cost-effective compared to other indoor positioning systems, which require installing wires. Geobeacons are easy to install and require minimal configuration. Furthermore, they are low maintenance, you almost never have to interfere and there is no interaction required with existing IT infrastructure. In addition, Sensolus offers all the required tools to create and manage geozones and have your indoor zoning up and running in less than one day.

This is also why one of our customers, a global leader in aerospace manufacturing, selected Sensolus geobeacons to create visibility on their production lines. They installed both Sensolus trackers and geobeacons to follow-up the production of pylons. A pylon is an airplane part used to keep the engine in place and is positioned underneath the wing.

In the building where this customer produces pylons, they installed several geobeacons to create geozones. They did the same with the different assembly stations that the pylon passes by during the manufacturing process. In this way, they know at all times where the pylon is located in the plant. It helps them verify production velocity and the stock capacity for pylons.

Another example is Volvo: they use our technology to detect delays or hiccups in the car manufacturing process. When launching a new model or model year change, cars do not always follow the normal flow. This can create bottlenecks in the manufacturing process or make it challenging to locate a car after it’s completely finished and parked on a huge site. Volvo therefore equipped their cars with Sensolus trackers to locate them both indoors and outdoors.

Bluetooth and LPWAN – A perfect match

Since Sensolus’ tracking technology is mainly used in industrial environments it needs to last for many years in the field without charging. The trackers need to function autonomously. Therefore all data is communicated via a public low-power wide area network (LPWAN), in our case Sigfox. LPWANs are extremely energy-efficient and cost-effective. However, they do come with stringent constraints in bandwidth and the number of messages that can be sent. For example, Sigfox allows a maximum of 140 messages per day of only twelve bytes. On top of this, there’s a legal limit of six messages per hour (in Europe).

In many cases, you need more bandwidth or a real-time local interaction with the trackers. Here, Bluetooth has an important role to play. Additionally, Bluetooth is the standard in smartphones. So smartphones are the perfect terminals for mobile users to perform real-time interactions in the field.

Secure firmware upgrades and data offloading

What illustrates quite well that Bluetooth and LPWAN are complementary are the secure over-the-air firmware upgrades that Sensolus performs on its devices. We also enable data offloading through Bluetooth. This is useful when the logging data is too big to transfer efficiently via an LPWAN or if a part of the data went lost during LPWAN transmission.

Local real-time asset tracking

Furthermore, Bluetooth can be used to enable real-time asset tracking. Imagine you are in a room full of assets like containers, custom packaging, etc. Often these assets all resemble each other. At the very beginning of this blog, we mentioned you can find your keys with Bluetooth. Well, this works pretty much the same for assets. You can find the specific asset by enabling proximity mode detection on a smartphone to easily locate the asset in the room.

Connecting with local sensors

Finally, Sensolus GPS trackers can act as a cloud-connected Bluetooth sensor hub. Due to Bluetooth in our trackers, we can create a bridge between our cloud-connected trackers and the local Bluetooth connected monitoring sensors. All without needing local infrastructure. With Sensolus you can thus track what’s inside the box that’s equipped with a tracker. You can understand the environmental conditions in the box or even detect unexpected shocks.

Nowadays, there’s a broad off-the-shelf availability of specific monitoring sensors (temperature, humidity, etc.) communicating via Bluetooth. They are used for supply chain optimization, predictive maintenance or other local monitoring purposes. You even see Bluetooth integrated in safety helmets, clothes, and tools. Recently, the first prototypes of battery-free Bluetooth tags were introduced in the market. Concludingly, we see that Bluetooth is undeniably taking the lead in local monitoring in industry 4.0.

Bluetooth – The right bet for connected processes in an industrial context

Bluetooth is taking big strides, as the technology continuously reinvents itself. An important milestone was the launch of version 4.0, which introduced a low-power variant. This variant is known as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and a perfect fit for Internet of Things applications. Another milestone, is the recent announcement of version 5.0, which will be yet another game-changer in the industry. This version increased the power efficiency, has an improved range (up to 400 meter), and its indoor positioning accuracy will drop below one meter.

The fact that Bluetooth chips are being mass-manufactured by many different specialized vendors, makes it both accessible and cost-effective. Because it’s a universally available protocol a lot of vendors integrate it into their product. In this way, you no longer have a dependency on a single vendor proprietary protocol which could complicate integrations with other systems.

As a conclusion

Bluetooth is definitely a winning standard for asset tracking in industry 4.0. Why?

  • It enables cost-effective, simple, and accurate indoor positioning.
  • It complements LPWAN for real-time interactions, required in daily processes
  • It is embedded in every smartphone, so perfect to link with the end users
  • It is a standardized protocol and multiple vendors are already offering specific sensors
  • It will provide indoor accuracy < 1 meter, and maybe one day even in battery-free tags

Bluetooth is undeniably a game-changer for industry 4.0. The growing possibilities to connect objects and even wirelessly connect them creates countless possibilities. It is crystal-clear that this technology is here to stay. At Sensolus, we develop solutions that are accessible and future-proof. Implementing Bluetooth in all our devices is just one important piece of this puzzle.

About the author

Kristoff Van Rattinghe 

CEO and Co-founder of Sensolus, leading IoT Sales and Business Development. Kristoff had various positions as a unit manager and project lead at technology ventures in different areas of the world. Nowadays, he invests his never-ending source of energy in growing Sensolus to become a sustainable innovator in IoT.