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Airbus Testing Low-Cost RTLS from Uwinloc

Several manufacturers are either piloting or planning deployments of the French startup's UHF RFID system that tracks location in real time with 3D and 12-inch location accuracy, using beacons that emit energy and receive transmissions from low-cost energy-harvesting tags.
By Claire Swedberg
Nov 23, 2016

Aircraft manufacturer Airbus is among a handful of European manufacturers and logistics companies that are testing a new radio frequency identification solution that offers the benefits of active real-time location system (RTLS) RFID technology without the cost of an active system or the need for batteries. French startup Uwinloc has developed the system to provide 2D or 3D location within about 12 inches of granularity, using low-cost passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags, and its beacon readers, as well as a hosted or dedicated server with software managing the collected read data.

Uwinloc, an indoor location system company, was founded one year ago to solve a problem at production plants and warehouses that was not being properly addressed by existing RFID systems. The company's founders, CEO Eric Cariou and CTO Jan Mennekens, both have backgrounds in technology and innovation dating back several decades. They launched the firm to develop a system that would help industrial, manufacturing and logistics companies track their tools, equipment, raw materials, supplies and finished goods.

Current automated locating solutions are available in active RTLS varieties requiring battery-powered tags, as well as passive systems that can detect tag location only within zones or as the tags move through portals. In the latter case, Cariou says, passive systems simply do not provide businesses with location information specific enough to identify where a tool, supply or finished part is located within a facility. Only the last seen data, specific to the RFID tag most recently interrogated, is available.

With most active RTLS solutions, the tags must be battery-powered, making them expensive and bulky, as well as requiring maintenance since batteries must be replaced. That is not affordable or feasible for most manufacturers or warehouses, Cariou says, if they want to track thousands or even millions of tagged items within their facility.

Uwinloc technology operates differently, Cariou says, and the company has four patents on its system. "Our solution is the first to track hundreds of millions of tags in harsh environments with metal," he states.

The tags are energized by beacons that transmit via a UHF RF signal to all tags within an area of 30 to 50 meters (98 to 164 feet). They transmit only energy, not their own unique identifiers or interrogation message, to the tags. The tags themselves, designed by Uwinloc and built by third-party manufacturers, include chips from "leading IC manufacturers," Cariou reports, though he declines to name those companies. The tags are able to harvest energy from beacons, then simply transmit a unique ID number when energized, without responding specifically to an interrogation. The beacons operate with considerably less power than that required by traditional passive RFID readers, he says, and can operate in the presence of metal. "The nature of the signal sent by passive UHF is less reliable" around metal, he notes, because reflections cause multi-path radio signals.

In the case of the Uwinloc system, the beacons simply emit energy, receive RF transmissions from the tags and forward that data back to a server via a Wi-Fi connection, or using the transmission technology of the customer's choice. The beacons themselves are powered by being plugged into an outlet. The data is received by either a server on the customer's own site, or by a cloud-based server in a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model. In either scenario, Uwinloc software triangulates the beacons to identify the tags' locations, and then provides a dashboard on which real-time location data can be displayed, along with reports and analytics as required by the customer. According to Uwinloc, the low power required by readers, as well as the lack of reflection of tag transmissions, enables the long read range.

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