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Fraunhofer IFF Develops Tracking Solution Using RFID, GPS and Cellular Technology

The system features a device designed to locate large items in storage yards by transmitting its GPS location via a cellular connection, using RFID technology to link the tracking unit to the object to which it attached.
By Claire Swedberg
Apr 23, 2013

The Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation (IFF), a German research organization, has developed a solution for tracking goods within large outdoor storage facilities, or during transport, that combines GPS location tracking, cellular transmission of data to a back-end system, and radio frequency identification tags to identify an item being tracked, and to store data regarding that object in IFF's software and on the tag. The technology is being employed by Enercon, a wind turbine manufacturer based in Magdeburg, Germany, as well as by an unnamed steel manufacturer. IFF has also provided the technology to measure and report the battery consumption of electric cars, as part of the HarzEE-Mobility research project, being carried out by a consortium of organizations and businesses. IFF is now seeking a partner to sell the solution to customers and provide any necessary support.

In 2007, IFF first began developing a location system for manufacturers to monitor vehicles within large storage yards, at the request of a firm that sought to use the technology in its own products. The organization started developing the solution to sell via resellers two years later, and is currently in conversations with such companies that will provide the system to customers, including manufacturers interested in tracking large items, such as trailers or other equipment, within their own yards.

The location-tracking unit contains a passive UHF RFID tag enabling a user to identify the device and its history. (Photograph copyright: Fraunhofer IFF/Dirk Mahler)

The system is based on a CeTEC battery-powered Picotrack location-tracking module, which CeTEC modified slightly according to IFF's requirements for the use case, says Tobias Kutzler, the research institute's project manager. The device has a built-in GPS unit to measure its longitude and latitude, and transmits that information via a GSM/GPRS connection. It can be attached directly to an asset or product, in order to track its movements and locations in real time. That data is then transmitted to a back-end system via a cellular connection. IFF also attached a passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) Gen 2 RFID tag to the Picotrack-based module. When interrogated by a handheld or fixed RFID reader, the tag provides the unique ID number that enables a user to identify the device providing location data. The ID is linked to data including the unit's history and when its battery was replaced. The battery-related information can be of value to users when they attach a unit to a new asset or product, by interrogating the tag to ensure that the device does not require a new battery prior to its attachment to an asset. In addition, IFF provides passive EPC Gen 2 UHF RFID tags to be attached (or built in) to the item being tracked. That tag also stores a unique ID number that identifies the object to which it is attached, thereby enabling users to write data directly to the tag, such as its lot number, its date of manufacture, the processes completed on the item and when it leaves the facility.

Because the location-tracking unit is typically removed from an item once it leaves a facility, such as a manufacturer's storage yard, the passive RFID tag attached to that object itself can be used to store data that could follow the item to a customer, as well as back to the manufacturer for maintenance or repair. IFF does not work with a specific RFID tag vendor, Kutzler says, noting that any passive EPC Gen 2 UHF RFID tag would be suitable for this purpose. However, he adds, the tag attached to the item itself must contain sufficient memory to store data written to it by users. The RFID tag is affixed to the side of the location-tracking module.

According to Kutzler, IFF also developed Web-based software, residing on a server that can be hosted by one of Fraunhofer's IT company partners. The software stores data about each item fitted with the location device and passive RFID tag. Such information may include the object's dimensions, along with customer information. Users can then access the software to determine a particular asset's location, as well as when it moved to that spot. What's more, the software can recommend locations for items as they are moved, or when the location device is first attached and the object is placed in storage, based on the locations of other goods. This software can be accessed via a network connection on handheld computers, touchscreen devices in storage yards or workstation PCs, Kutzler says, and can also reside directly on a user's back-end system. The location-tracking module includes a motion detector that can trigger the device to begin transmitting its location. If it does not move, it remains dormant, thereby saving battery life. Once daily, a non-moving unit transmits its location and battery-life details to the software.

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