The Internet of Things (IoT) technology industry is expanding at a rapid rate, with over 15.14 billion connected IoT devices globally.
As usage and availability of IoT technologies continues to grow, organisations and businesses are increasingly exploring and making use of asset tracking solutions.
IoT asset tracking is a revolutionary technology that leverages the power of the Internet of Things to monitor and manage assets across various local and global locations for several purposes.
It combines hardware devices, such as sensors and beacons, with software applications and platforms to collect, analyse, and interpret data about an object, vehicle or person’s location, condition, and performance.
In this article, we will explore what IoT asset tracking is, how it is implemented in various use cases, and some of the key challenges the technology faces.
What is IoT asset tracking?
IoT asset tracking generally refers to the use of tracking devices which typically use Internet of Things SIM cards for tracking physical assets.
This can be performed by using devices which transmit their locations periodically or by scanning QR/barcode labels attached to assets. Supporting technologies can include GPS, satellite, BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) beacons, or RFID tags.
These solutions provide real-time or periodic data about the location, condition, and usage of assets in a variety of locations and conditions.
Facilitating a streamlined and efficient asset management system which can be narrow or broad in terms of asset types, motivation for monitoring or geography.
With the potential for IoT asset tracking aiding operational efficiency, security of devices and their recovery, businesses can provide added value services or create operational efficiencies which increase revenues, increase asset utilisation, or save costs.
How does IoT asset tracking work?
IoT asset tracking fundamentally operates on a simple principle: connecting physical assets to the digital world via available IoT technologies.
At the heart of operations are IoT devices, sensors, or tags. They are typically installed within devices or vehicles, attached to objects, or provided as wearables for users.
These tags can be either passive (only transmitting data when within range of a reader device) or active (capable of broadcasting their signal).
The signals and data these tags emit can be picked up by locally situated IoT gateways or directly via the mobile network if the device has a modem and IoT SIM card.
The data can include various forms of information, such as the item’s location or its current state or condition (temperature, humidity, battery status, etc.).
Once received by the IoT/Management platform, this raw data is processed and transformed into valuable insights using cloud-based software, with user-friendly dashboards enabling businesses to track, monitor, and manage their assets remotely and in real time.
Obviously, the network and system architecture are critical to the success of the service. A range of connectivity technologies can be used, but for flexibility a mobile network is mostly used for the back haul of traffic from local radio base stations.
Local connection points can also be via Wi-Fi Routers, directional BLE beacons, and their IoT Gateways, or via satellite and maritime networks.
Fundamentally, however, the flexibility, ubiquity and cost-effectiveness of mobile networks help make asset tracking processes a powerful tool for businesses to optimise their resources, prevent loss, and enhance productivity.
What communication technologies do IoT asset trackers use?
IoT asset trackers utilise an array of communication technologies to transmit data effectively across varying distances and conditions.
These technologies range from ubiquitous cellular networks, which leverage the extensive coverage and reliability of mobile networks, to Bluetooth, a very short-range wireless communication technology which can be ideal for indoor tracking and connecting with wearable devices.
As stated, cellular networks, such as 4G and LTE, are some of the main communication deployment methods for IoT asset tracking.
Mobile communications, however, are constantly advancing. With 2G and 3G sunsets, many companies are looking to utilise technologies such as Cat-M1 and LTE-M for their lower power usage and longer range.
The roll-out of 5G, also opens possibilities for utilising a private 5G network for specific use cases as part of a 5G IoT tracking system. This technology is attractive for intense industrial, port and healthcare applications due to the higher speeds, higher capacities, and lower latency.
Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN) are also playing a crucial role in IoT asset tracking. LPWAN technology offers the balance of long-range connectivity and low power consumption, making it particularly advantageous for tracking assets spread out over extensive areas or those located in hard-to-reach places.
BLE beacons can also provide useful services such as people tracking and counting. Passive radar technologies are also beginning to provide more accurate options in these areas.
These types of technologies, however, usually require an IoT gateway or router to convert these message protocols to those transportable over backhaul mobile and IP networks as their communications range is usually short distance.
Each of these technologies has its unique strengths, with the choice largely determined by the specific requirements of the tracking scenario, including factors such as asset value, expected locations, geography, accuracy, range, power consumption, cost, and data rate.
Key benefits of IoT asset tracking
The key benefits of IoT asset tracking vary depending upon the use case and application. Many of the technologies, however, are used across a variety of sectors, leveraging economies of scale and significant advantages across a variety of industries.
At the most basic level, IoT asset tracking provides businesses with real-time visibility of theirs or clients’ assets as the constant monitoring of them reduces the risk of loss, misplacement, or aids in their recovery.
For example, asset tracking can involve the monitoring of high value items such as performance vehicles, such as with Scorpion Automotive.
Asset tracking or monitoring also eliminates the need for manual inventory checks, thereby increasing scheduling efficiency, saving both time and resources. This can be seen in our NetBin Waste Monitoring IoT asset tracking solution.
Asset tracking is, therefore, much more than just location tracking. This grouping of IoT technology can also involve monitoring environmental conditions, such as temperature and humidity in smart refrigeration. This is particularly beneficial for industries like pharmaceuticals or food and beverage distribution, where product quality can be severely affected by adverse environmental factors of faulty storage equipment.
The data gathered from IoT asset tracking also allows for predictive maintenance, preventing unexpected equipment failures and extending the lifespan of assets.
These predictive insights can also aid in providing market intelligence and assist strategic decision-making. Enabling businesses to better plan and manage their product lifecycles and optimise their service offerings.
IoT asset tracking can also ensure compliance with important regulatory legislation and standards by providing a detailed historical record of all asset movements. This is also important for emerging market sectors.
For example, all domestic EV charge points in the UK, need to be connected and managed as assets. This is to enable them to be managed in terms of current owner/user, energy efficiency and to provide important safety.
In short, the benefits of IoT asset tracking can lead to added value services, improved operational efficiency, higher yields, reduced costs, increased asset lifespan, and improved regulatory compliance.
Challenges of IoT asset tracking
While IoT asset tracking presents a wealth of opportunities, it also brings about certain challenges.
One such challenge pertains to data security and privacy. As IoT devices collect and transmit sensitive data, there’s an inherent risk of cyberattacks or data breaches, which could lead to substantial financial and reputational damage.
Many IoT devices have limited battery life, or rely on vehicle battery systems, which can affect the continuity of tracking and data collection.
Some research shows that as many as one-third of industrial asset tracking companies require their device’s battery to last for more than five years in order to remain efficient, highlighting the need for energy efficient applications of the devices.
This aspect greatly limits the suitability of IoT devices for tracking many types of devices which lack a power source.
For example, most mail deliveries, instead of attaching a device to the parcel, use QR codes, tags, scanners, and delivery vehicle tracking to circumvent this issue.
Often, trackers such as vehicle or insurance devices, will only be fitted and used for the service contract period. This means that if a vehicle changes owners, the telematics/tracker might remain connected and active despite no longer being useful.
It is not unknown for vehicles to be connected to multiple trackers which have been accumulated through its lifespan. This, in turn, creates excessive redundant signalling which creates unnecessary overheads for mobile operators.
The scalability of IoT solutions can also pose significant challenges in terms of software infrastructure. Many companies develop their own in-house solutions, whereas others use third party IoT platforms, using API to provide integration into their own services and context nuances.
As layers of technology build, integration of new IoT technology and networks with legacy systems can become more and more complex and require substantial resources to manage coherently.
How to overcome IoT asset tracking challenges
To overcome the inherent security challenges, it is important to implement robust security protocols and regular software updates to mitigate risks of cyber-attacks. This can mean implementing device best practices, network level controls and creating regional points of presence.
In terms of power budget and battery life, employing IoT devices with long-lasting or rechargeable batteries can alleviate issues, but will rely on correct usage and maintenance plans.
Device design should also ensure that optimum communications are implemented. This means that devices can cycle through modes which save power and protect networks from excessive signalling.
Additionally, utilising energy efficient IoT networks, such as LTE-M or NB-IoT, can further reduce the need for frequent battery replacements, but require forethought in terms of device provision and IoT SIM Card strategy.
For resilience and scalability, cloud based IoT platforms provide geo-resilience and can accommodate growth as well as being scalable for accommodating very large numbers of connected devices.
To optimise or overcome integration issues, seeking expert advice, or partnering with experienced IoT solution providers helps to ensure a cost-effective service solution.
Leveraging existing infrastructure provides economy of scale benefits. The challenge is often how to cost-effectively and securely add bespoke components which are an integral part of the asset tracking operation or service. In these cases, well designed API interfaces are often crucial.
Some Use cases of IoT asset tracking
The use cases for IoT asset tracking are virtually limitless.
Here are three use cases which illustrate the types of IoT asset tracking that exists. This may help you understand the likely benefits such technologies can bring to your business.
1) Transporting refrigerated products
Moveable or static IoT devices can help ensure that food or medicines are kept within their specified, optimal conditions through their value and distribution chain, thereby maintaining safety, freshness, and quality. This is particularly critical for perishable goods or vaccines, where minor deviations can lead to spoilage, health risks, and consequently financial loss.
Such activities can involve their movement within trucks and vans, storage within distribution facilities, and even shipping containers. For such a variety of modes of travel, often different tracking devices are needed. For example, refrigeration units often come with temperature monitors built in.
Shipping containers, on the other hand, may require an additional external device which is fitted to the exterior of the shipping container, accompanied with a large battery, solar panel and even satellite link for maritime tracking.
Devices that are fitted within vehicles need to comply with the vehicle standards and observe the power characteristics.
Central to this variety of transportation modes and range of devices is a platform which can receive, store, collate, analyse, process, and visualise the data. For example, alerts may need to be sent to the driver to warn of an impending problem.
Historical data can also provide valuable insights for continuous improvement and to demonstrate evidence of compliance with food or health, safety regulations.
The application of IoT asset tracking in chilled food transportation, therefore, is increasingly a necessity for the integrity and efficiency of cold-chain logistics.
2) Health and safety
IoT asset tracking has a significant role to play in enhancing health and safety standards. By utilising sensor-enabled devices, it’s possible to monitor a variety of conditions in real time. Thereby enabling the risk mitigation, rapid detection, and pre-programmed responses to potential hazards.
Typical instances include fire, heat, CO, CO2, Radon, and mould detection. They obviously necessitate adherence to compliance standards. IoT technologies enable such crucial systems to be located and ensure that they remain operational.
IoT devices also help track critical assets such as fire extinguishers and defibrillators. Ensuring they are in their required location and are maintained. This can involve tags or codes being scanned as part of a visual and physical inspection.
Recording and analysing historical data allows safety professionals to identify patterns and trends.
For example, monitoring CO2 levels may demonstrate that levels are above those that are conducive to a healthy work environment, but are perhaps consciously imperceptible to employees or whose effects are attributed to other factors or causes.
In cases where people are monitored, wearables such as health and activity watches may need to use low power BLE technologies or be rechargeable. This is especially relevant to the Lone Worker Sector, where tracking and monitoring personnel in vulnerable or hazardous areas is paramount.
Thus, IoT asset tracking, through its real-time monitoring and data intelligence capabilities, can significantly contribute to management of health and safety compliance and risk mitigation.
3) Healthcare asset tracking
The implementation of IoT in the healthcare sector has somewhat accelerated due to the unusual circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. This means that more equipment is being in people’s homes as part of the development of new practices to improve care and the trial of ‘home-wards’.
Clearly remote connectivity is vital in such practical use cases and ensuring devices are being used, correctly configured, recharged where necessary and have not been misplaced becomes important as many devices are capitalised on the basis that they will be reused across many patients.
In hospitals, expensive medical or healthcare equipment such as portable scanners, beds, wheelchairs, and other valuable resources can be tracked, ensuring they are readily available when required. Thus, improving patient care and hospital operations.
Given that research appears to show that on average 33% of nurses spend one hour per shift looking for equipment, the tracking of assets can help reduce the burden on resources and hopefully provide a better patient experience.
In pharmaceutical contexts, IoT tracking can help monitor and record vital data, which aids the maintenance of the integrity of sensitive drugs and vaccines.
Vaccines must be procured in bulk, and a variation in temperature can render a whole period of supply unusable. Often this cost will fall on local health administrative authorities or GP practices. In cases where vaccines are in short supply, this can be catastrophic.
Thus, in the realm of healthcare, IoT asset tracking is increasingly an indispensable and integrated part of the effective management of resources, clinical integrity, and enhanced patient care.
Utilise IoT to its highest ability!
In conclusion, while IoT asset tracking is a long and well understood use of IoT, the increasing variety of devices, battery technologies, network options and tracking platforms that are becoming available are opening more integrated forms of tracking for supply chain and health and safety applications.
They are increasing levels of operational efficiency, safety, and customer satisfaction across many industries and helping to solve individual company problems.
By overcoming the challenges and harnessing the potential of IoT networks, organisations and businesses can unlock new dimensions of service provision, growth, profitability, and competitive advantage for themselves.
As technology continues to evolve and permeate every facet of our lives, IoT asset tracking remains a cornerstone of the digital revolution, creating a smarter, more connected world.
Caburn Telecom is a highly experienced provider of IoT solutions, with the capacity to tailor a comprehensive asset tracking connectivity system to meet your needs. Contact us today for more information on how we can help you get the most out of emerging IoT technology.