Monthly Archives: September 2013

Smart device indoor positioning meets real time location services

By: Jonah McLeod, Kilopass Technology Inc.

The folks over at IDTechEx had a webinar on Wednesday August 26, 2013 and I sat in because of its title “Mobile Phone Indoor Positioning Systems (IPS) 2014-2024.” The presenter Dr. Peter Harrop, Chairman of the UK-based market research firm, began by explaining the difference between indoor positioning systems (IPS) and real time location services (RTLS). IPS has garnered all the hype because of its application in mobile phones and other wireless devices, but RTLS is the sleeping giant about to awake, as hinted to by a $500M order Hewlett Packard Enterprise Services won from the U.S. Veterans Administration to develop and install an RTLS in all its medical facilities and mail-order pharmacies (nextgov.com).

Dr. Harrop recites the case argued by wireless service providers, equipment vendors, handset manufacturers and social networking providers of the promise for IPS technology. In IPS’ fullest implementation, the argument goes, a user’s mobile phone could locate in a multistory shopping complex, for example, a friend, a particular store, and ultimately a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes in that store. It could also direct you to the nearest exit in the case of a major disaster and help locate family members separated in the chaos. However today, Dr. Harrop characterized the fulfillment of the promises as “primitive.”

Of these scenarios, finding friends or family members is the easiest as this will involve using existing mobile phone functionality. The other scenario—finding those designer shoes on sale—requires some hardware, software, and services refinement. Today, it’s possible to find a store offering incentives if you’ve enabled location services and are accepting messages from vendors in the mall offering deals. But finding those special shoes in that store is still a manual task because the RFID tag in the merchandise that could pinpoint its location is operating on a different frequency than the WiFi and BluTooth found in mobile devices.

Furthermore, indoor positioning is still primitive because the navigation is still dead reckoning based on the last GPS fix before the user enters a large building such as a shopping mall or office building. Thereafter, navigation is left up to accelerometers and gyros to determine movement on a given level and the barometer to detect movement to other floors. Using received signal strength indication from the over-crowded WiFi or Bluetooth 2.4 GHz ISM band within the structure, the phone may be able to correct for errors in the phone’s computed location.  Indoor navigation is also primitive because Google hasn’t gotten round to having its self-driving cars map the 3D space of multistory buildings. Thus converting a computed position to a store in a mall or business in an office complex is still pretty hit-or-miss.

RTLS is another thing entirely and the continuation of a technology promise made with the advent of radio frequency identifiers (RFIDs).  According to Wikipedia, Mario Cardullo patented today’s RFID in January 1973, a passive radio transponder with 16-bit memory for use as a toll device. Now widely deployed for automated toll collection on bridges, weigh stations, and toll roads, the technology is being applied to securely track assets and individuals at a distance, using second generation RFID tags.

The HP order provides an example of the type of system that will be rolling out in large enterprises worldwide. The Veterans Administration estimated that each of its 152 hospitals would require 80,000 RTLS tags and each of its seven mail-order pharmacy would use 3,000 tags. These tags would be installed in hospital assets that today are managed manually. The new system will be able to track supplies and equipment within 3 feet, thus easily locating and maintaining inventory.  According to Nevtgov.com report, the Navy is soliciting bids for a similar system to track 300,000 assets and personnel in its hospitals worldwide.

According to IDTechEx’s research report “Mobile Phone Indoor Positioning Systems (IPS) and Real Time Locating Systems (RTLS) 2014-2024,” the convergence of IPS and RTLS using second generation RFID will drive tens of billions of dollars of business that is emerging with Apple, Samsung, Google, Nokia, Microsoft, Hewlett Packard and IBM clashing over the spoils.  While IPS relies on GPS as well as indoor navigation in a wide-ranging environment, RTLS is more concerned with tracking assets and personnel within known facility that may be geographically dispersed.

Though the vast majority of the billions of dollars in business will be made in software and systems development there will also be renewed design activity in the RFID tags and readers where chip design companies can participate. One function that will drive some of this design activity is security, especially where tags are used in monitoring the movement of critical assets and individuals. Take the example of the passport cards and enhanced drivers licenses, both of which can be read at a distance and thereby cloned as highlighted in the paper “EPC RFID Tag Security Weaknesses and Defenses: Passport Cards, Enhanced Drivers Licenses, and Beyond,” authored by University of Washington researchers.

Where before an RFID tag might only contain its Electronic Product Code (EPC), radio and energy harvesting circuits to power the radio, additional hardware and software are being designed in to provide enhanced security. The state machine that controlled the tag’s functions in the past will be replaced by more powerful processors and low-cost, low power non-volatile memory.

While the passport and drivers license examples point up the problem of security, their volumes are minuscule when compared to the number of branded products that move from manufacturer to retail outlet. Protecting this flow of goods from the high volume of counterfeit products being injected into the flow has become a major objective for manufacturers and retailers. The case is made in the white paper “Building Radio frequency IDentification for the Global Environment” For chip makers looking to participate in this market opportunity, devising a low-cost, highly secure RFID tag is the next problem to solve. Once it has been solved then maybe having your smart phone find that pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes in the shopping mall will be a piece of cake and you can be sure that the for the high sticker price you pay, you will be getting the genuine article.