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What Are the Differences Between RTLS and RFID?

Posted By RFID Journal, 07.22.2013

And is GPS considered a type of RTLS technology?

—Name withheld


RTLS stands for real-time location system. An RTLS is any solution that can tell you where an asset, individual, vehicle or other object is located, in real time. RFID stands for radio frequency identification. Many real-time location systems employ active RFID technology. The active tags are set to send out a signal every few seconds or minutes (depending on how near to real time you want the information to be) and antennas pick up those signals. Software then uses triangulation or other methods to calculate each tagged object's position.

There are also real-time location systems that utilize other technologies. Sonitor offers a solution that uses active tags that transmit ultrasound signals instead of RF signals. One difference between ultrasound and RFID is that sound waves do not penetrate walls the way electromagnetic energy does. So if you wanted to know whether an object was located within a specific room, ultrasound systems could tell you that. With an RFID system, it can sometimes be difficult to determine if an asset is on one side of a wall or another.

There are also RTLS solutions that use infrared, a line-of-sight technology that can tell you where an object is located—but if that item is in a drawer or under a blanket, the system will not function. In many cases, infrared and active RFID are combined, in order to provide the benefits of being able to read through walls, as well as more precise location information when needed.

GPS technology, when integrated in a tag that includes some sort of transmitter (such as a cellular radio) to communicate a tagged object's identity and GPS coordinates, could be considered an RTLS technology, though most people do not refer to it as such.

—Mark Roberti, Founder and Editor, RFID Journal


Tim Harrington 2013-07-22 04:36:34 PM
Excellent description Mark. One difference from your blog is that RTLS stands for Real Time Locating System, rather than location system. When we created the term on the floor of the ID Expo Show back in '98, the self appointed ad hoc committee of Bert Moore of AIM, Jay Werb of PinPoint, and myself wanted to convey the idea of action. We felt that the word location was too passive, and that a network of locating sensors giving contiguous coverage would be significantly different then a RFID tag passing a portal. The greatest differentiator would be the ability to track assets and people in motion and then be able to make actionable decisions based on that motion. -Tim Harrington
Graeme Kilshaw 2014-03-20 01:29:12 PM
As CEO of the Friendship Cube Group, it is required that I make decisions about the tracking needs of our product, the soft silicon friendship cube. Thank you Mark, for the good advise. Our Friendship Cube Group is experimenting with RFID, GPS, and RTLS chips. There are different costs and benefits of these three technologies. Our goal is for each of our silicon friendship cubes has all the benefits of chip implants. We could charge different prices for cubes with different tracking technologies. The six symbols on our friendship cubes rotate to create an efficient digital visual binary alphabet. Each Friendship Cube is made from a soft silicon mold factory in China. Each Friendship Cube has an implanted wireless chip embedded in it, that transmits information to the Global Information Grid… making each Friendship Cube a part of the Web of Things… the Semantic Web… Web 3.0. Through these chips, each silicon friendship cube can be named and kept track of via Geo-tags. If you play the “trade-up” game with our friendship cubes, you can still keep track of every cube you have traded. Silicon friendship cubes are recognizable by pattern-recognition webcams... and make for an awesome toy... that provides hundreds of hours of valuable entertainment and education. Our webcam pattern games teach visual tracking, hand eye coordination, pattern recognition, memory, strategy, communication, navigation, and teamwork. It is my suggestion that we write an article about the Friendship Cube in the RFID Journal. ~Graeme Kilshaw
Graeme Kilshaw 2014-03-20 03:05:03 PM
The Friendship Cube Group is looking for RFID, GPS, and RTLS chips for our soft silicon cubes. If you could send us a catalogue, it would help us make our purchase decision… and you would be our preferred supplier.
Andrew Scott 2015-11-25 09:08:04 AM
The flexibility of these RTLS solutions makes them so valuable in so many industries. More and more healthcare facilities, hospitals and medical centers are using RTLS and hospital RFID tags to track assets and employees, monitor food and medical storage compartments, and even protect newborns and patients from elopement. Meanwhile, the shipping industry has managed to find just as many applications for the same product.

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