Tech Company Offers Integrators Precise Indoor Location with BLE, AoA

Published: June 4, 2024
  • Chip company u-blox has released an RTLS system for integrators that leverages Bluetooth Low Energy with Angle of Arrival location tracking.
  • The technology, including anchors, tags and middleware, is being built into RTLS solutions by companies specializing in healthcare, industrial and other applications.

Switzerland-based technology company u-blox has released a new, dedicated indoor positioning solution based on Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) Angle of Arrival (AoA) aimed at real-time location for asset, inventory or personnel management and safety applications.

The u-locate technology is intended to offer an affordable and easy-to-deploy solution for system integrators, serving as an indoor version of something as ubiquitous as GPS-based location tracking. And while u-blox is traditionally a maker of chips and modules, u-locate expands its offerings to include real-time locating system (RTLS) anchors to read beacon tags and middleware to interpret location and provide user interface.

By leveraging an advanced feature of BLE 5.1, the system offers AoA as an alternative to the more traditional received signal strength tracking (RSSI). In that way, the company says u-locate can offer real-time, sub-meter accuracy to indoor environments, that also integrates with outdoor systems that use other technologies such as GPS.

Making RTLS More Seamless for Integrators

The company’s goal is to provide a solution for a challenge faced by systems integrators related to creating an interoperable, RTLS system. In many cases, integrators have to build a solution for real-time locating according to their customer’s or industry’s unique needs. That means selecting hardware and designing software that meets the requirements of healthcare customers, a logistics company or manufacturer.

With u-locate, the company offers the necessary hardware and middleware that provides real-time data processing, interoperability, scalability and network reliability, said Magnus Johansson, u-blox’s senior product manager for IoT software and wireless IoT modules.

The company’s products help users deliver accurate and efficient indoor positioning. “We’re not directly offering a solution to the end customer, we’re looking at what value can we bring to system integrators or solution providers,” Johansson said.

Expanding from Chip Background

u-blox was founded in Switzerland in 1997, spun off from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH), and focused on positioning technology research in GPS or satellite-based positioning. The company traditionally serves markets in automotive, industrial and consumer sectors. Last year it earned about $663 million in modules and chips sales for products such as GPS receivers and wireless connectivity, for applications such as automated driving, asset tracking, healthcare and industrial automation.

While GPS chips are still the company’s core focus, it is now expanding its portfolio with this indoor positioning solution. Johansson pointed to the continued growth trends in RTLS markets, (ABI Research sees a CAGR compound annual growth rate for hardware of 23.6 percent between 2021 and 2030).

And while Johansson said the highest RTLS growth rate is within manufacturing, other sectors that are expanding real-time tracking technology adoption are in healthcare, hospitality, retail and agriculture. u-blox officials said they are in conversations with customers who are planning deployments of pilots of the technology in a variety of industries.

Use cases include everything from asset tracking to warehouse logistics and personnel safety.  Such systems can help companies detect when people enter hazardous zones anticipate collision risks between two tagged, moving objects.

Omlox Open Standard

By offering BLE-based technology, the company anticipates the solutions keeping cost and power consumption lower than traditional RTLS technologies such as ultra-wideband (UWB) that require an infrastructure of receivers, and high-cost, battery-powered sensors.

At the same time, integrators don’t want to invest in algorithm development and the hardware design. “They want a packaged product that they can easily use and integrate for their customers,” Johansson pointed out. “They want to focus on the vertical-specific features with their analytics on top.”

To make the solution more universally adaptable, the u-locate system adheres to the Omlox open locating standard—a global standard for RTLS technology use, that is based on UWB but includes other technologies. The goal of the standard is to enable a variety of technologies to be built into a standardized system to make RTLS deployment more universal and flexible.

The standard includes APIs for configuration of zones, location providers (such as tags), trackables (the assets that are tracked), geofences and events related to the interaction of these entities, such as entering/exiting fences, collisions and trackable motions.

How it Works

Typically with u-locate, integrators and solution providers will acquire the u-blox anchors and BLE tags or leverage existing beacons that their customer is deploying.

As tagged items are moved around the space, the anchors receive transmission from each beacon tag. They will include the unique ID of that tag as well as the angle at which the transmission was received. The anchors use a BLE 5.1 feature—known as constant tone extension—to calculate the AoA and send that data to the u-locate middleware. If several anchors are receiving transmissions from the same tag, the location data becomes more granular.

Location granularity can be within a 10-centimeter accuracy in optimal conditions, whereas a space with many walls or other obstacles, such as an office, may accomplish a 60 centimeter accuracy. Typically, a 600 square meter space would require about six anchors in an open-space environment.

If a company is tracking people or goods outside of their facility, the data can be captured according to satellite-based, GPS positioning and integrated into the system for seamless indoor-outdoor functionality, Johansson said. The middleware accomplishes additional features such as a user interface for geofencing, georeferencing, collision detection and an alerting mechanism.

Flexibility to Include UWB, GPS

The u-blox anchors come with firmware that automatically detects the devices’ orientation, locates the positioning engine on the network, and includes NFC to allow for provisioning of NFC-enabled u-locate tags to make installation easier than standard RTLS systems.

Each anchor sends data back to a server via Wi-Fi 6 dual band 2.4 or 5 GHz, and Ethernet. The device comes with a motion sensor and can receive transmissions from NFC-push button tag.

Additionally, users can build a hybrid solution that combines UWB technology in places where extremely precise location is needed, and BLE beacon-based data in other areas, where cost savings is the priority.

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