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A Guide to Real-Time Locating Systems

RFID provides an automated way for companies to track, identify and protect assets and people.
By Bob Violino
Dec 01, 2006—One of the key benefits of radio frequency identification technology is that it can enable organizations to locate specific objects in a given area at a particular moment in time. Real-time locating systems (RTLSs) leverage RFID to provide this capability by using radio signals to transmit the physical location of tagged objects in real or near-real time. RTLSs are being adopted in industries such as health care, logistics and manufacturing, as companies realize the benefits of having an automated way to track the location of assets—and, in some cases, people—in real time. The U.S. military uses RTLSs to monitor the movement of trucks as they enter and leave terminals.

Major components of the automated systems include RFID tags—typically, active (battery-powered) tags, but recently some passive ones—that are attached to the objects being tracked; RFID interrogators (also called receivers or activators) located throughout a particular area—such as a warehouse, distribution yard or hospital—to identify the location of the object; and software that provides the tracking application. Proponents of RTLSs say the technology offers certain advantages over other locating systems, such as infrared, bar-code and global-positioning systems. For example, RTLSs can require less maintenance than infrared and don't need line-of-sight readings as do bar-code systems.

While RTLSs have been around for more than a decade, standards for systems interoperability are still emerging. That can make it difficult for organizations to share information along the supply chain. Managers considering an RTLS for a supply-chain application, such as global shipments received at a distribution center, might want to look into hardware that supports multiple frequencies and protocols.

Two key industry standards relate to RTLSs, according to Steve Halliday, founder of High Tech Aid, a consulting firm specializing in automatic identification and data collection. ANSI INCITS 371, published by the American National Standards Institute, covers air-interface protocols and application programming interfaces. It is intended to encourage interoperability of products from various RTLS vendors. ISO 24730, from the International Organization for Standardization, covers air-interface protocols and location algorithms for RTLS. It is expected to be published soon.

Another issue is the cost of RTLS tags. They're expensive, so tracking low-value assets is usually not an option. One interrogator can range from less than $500 to thousands of dollars. A company wouldn't need many to cover a large open area such as a distribution yard, but numerous units would be required to cover a building that has many corridors and rooms.

Despite the challenges, the global market for RTLSs is expected to increase from about $245 million in annual sales in 2006 to $1.26 billion by 2011, a 30 percent compound annual growth rate, according to research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. As shown in this chart (click here to download it), which offers details on more than a dozen RTLS providers, choosing an RTLS that's right for your company can be confusing. Here are some of the important factors to consider to help you narrow down your choices and make a smart decision.
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