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RFID marks critical physical assets with low-cost electronic active or passive tags that contain information about the equipment it’s attached to.

7 popular asset tracking network technologies

Dec. 22, 2021
Options vary for indoor and outdoor, short-range and long-range applications.

Asset tracking in the enterprise is the process of monitoring the whereabouts of business-critical physical assets that are mobile in nature. Common examples include the tracking of infusion pumps within hospitals, mobile computing equipment, inventory containers/pallets, automobile fleets and irreplaceable tools or equipment.

Monitoring and controlling in-building or campuswide assets used to be an arduous task consisting of manual processes and a fair number of visibility gaps. However, modern asset management platforms can now help automate many asset tracking processes while gaining real-time visibility into the location of expensive and mission-critical mobile components. Tying an asset management platform to trackable physical assets in the field, however, requires some form of network connectivity. Let’s look at 7 of the most popular and/or emerging network technologies that make asset tracking across smart buildings and campuses possible.

1.    Barcodes

Perhaps the earliest form of automated asset tracking is the bar code. Data pertinent to the asset being tracked is embedded into the barcode and can be read by manual scanners or at “choke points” strategically located throughout a building or warehouse. The scanned data is then sent back to a centralized database where it can track the asset over time.

While barcodes remain a popular asset tracking option in 2021, understand that the technology often requires manual steps to scan, is easy to circumvent and leaves large visibility gaps. Thus, for most modern asset tracking projects, modern alternatives are typically a better choice.

2.     RFID

Often considered to be the successor to the barcode in the asset tracking world, RFID marks critical physical assets with low-cost electronic active or passive tags that contain information about the equipment it’s attached to. When these tags get into close enough proximity to an RFID reader, the tag (and thus, the asset the tag is attached to) is automatically read and monitored in real-time.

RFID is considered to be superior to barcodes because it becomes much more difficult to exit a monitored area without the RFID tag being read and logged. However, keep in mind that RFID does require its own network to be deployed across critical entry/exit points. Thus, the cost to implement a large-scale RFID tracking system can get expensive.

3.     WiFi

Some business leaders are looking to leverage their existing WiFi network for asset tracking purposes. Doing so can save tremendous amounts of money by consolidating asset tracking tasks onto an IP-based infrastructure. A WiFi positioning system (WPS) can be integrated into any WiFi network and uses battery-powered WiFi capable tags to attach to physical assets.

While WiFi asset tracking is a great option for indoor use-cases, WiFi signal does not propagate large distances compared to other wireless technologies. Additionally, WiFi tags are more expensive and require much more power to connect to a WLAN compared to alternatives such as RFID. Thus, this type of connectivity is best used in situations where only a handful of assets need to be monitored within a building.

4.     Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)

BLE is a networking technology that fits somewhere between RFID and WiFi in the asset tracking world. Because BLE radios are often included in modern, enterprise-grade WiFi access points, the technology can piggyback a building’s IP network for asset tracking purposes.

BLE is also highly efficient, being able to transmit relevant tracking data from BLE beacons across a large coverage area while also consuming very little battery power.

5.     Global Positioning System (GPS)

For outdoor or long-distance tracking purposes, GPS is a fantastic option. Passive GPS tracking simply tracks and locally logs information that can be uploaded into a centralized system once it has the ability to do so. Active fleet tracking systems typically combine the tracking capabilities of GPS with cellular or satellite data connectivity to send data back to a centralized monitoring system in real-time.

6.     Long Range (LoRa) wireless

LoRa is a set of wireless-based technologies that focuses on low throughput, long distance communications. In most cases, this is precisely what an asset tracking network requires. Like WiFi, LoRa uses unlicensed frequencies in the lower megahertz range. Thus, it can transmit over large distances.

LoRa is ideal for deployment in low-tech warehouses, manufacturing plants and outdoors across farms, vineyards and corporate campuses. While range and low-battery consumption are fantastic with a LoRa asset tracking network, understand that it cannot transmit/receive data at speeds that other network access technologies such as WiFi or LTE/5G can provide.

7.     Private 5G

The newest network access kid on the block from an asset tracking perspective is a private 5G network that operates on the license-free citizens broadband radio service (CBRS) spectrum. A private 5G network can be deployed inside a building or across a large office, warehouse or manufacturing campus with ease. The other benefit is that the 5G radio network can leverage an existing IP network backbone as opposed to having to operate a separate network just for asset tracking purposes. Thus, this type of deployment is ideal when an existing IP network already exists.

Because 5G is still a relatively new technology, not many 5G-capable asset tags exist at the moment. Thus, implementation options may be limited as the market catches up. As time goes on, however, low-cost and flexible 5G tags will become more widely available and a private 5G asset tracking platforms will be able to tout large coverage areas, low implementation costs, long lasting tag battery life and high-speed data transport performance.

Which asset tracking networking technology is right for you? While there is no perfect asset tracking network technology that works for all use case scenarios, keep in mind that some are clearly better than others in certain situations. For outdoor and long-range tracking needs, GPS, LoRa and private 5G are obvious choices. Then for indoor use cases, RFID, WiFi and BLE might be better options from a tracking and cost perspective. Regardless, the key is to understand the pros and cons of each network access technology and determine which one is right for you based on the types of assets being tracked and the location or locations where the assets will be deployed.

About the Author

Andrew Froehlich | Contributor

As a highly regarded network architect and trusted IT consultant with worldwide contacts, Andrew Froehlich counts over two decades of experience and possesses multiple industry certifications in the field of enterprise networking. Andrew is the founder and president of Colorado-based West Gate Networks, which specializes in enterprise network architectures and data center build-outs. He’s also the founder of an enterprise IT research and analysis firm, InfraMomentum. As the author of two Cisco certification study guides published by Sybex, he is a regular contributor to multiple enterprise IT-related websites and trade journals with insights into rapidly changing developments in the IT industry.

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