What is (Cellular) Asset Tracking?

/ Written By Chris Gammell

The great promise of the Internet of Things (IoT) is understanding where and how your “things” are operating and optionally pushing commands back to those devices.

A subset of the entire field is called “asset tracking”. These are mostly passive monitoring devices focused on telling where it is currently located; pushing commands to asset trackers is a secondary concern. This passive monitoring can have far-reaching consequences, especially if you’re in the business of renting or caring for the device being tracked. In the age of data, the asset tracker allows you to put a moving dot on a map.

When there is a high value asset involved, tracking involves loss prevention and/or recovering a temporarily lost item. Other times it comes down to efficiency; understanding the path of a device through a manufacturing process or throughout a warehouse is valuable to improve processes. If you can better monitor and subsequently optimize a delivery or an industrial process, the handling time and cost drops. This means savings to your bottom line.

Which industries benefit from asset tracking?

Industrial and commercial segments benefit the most from asset tracking. They have the most value in transit and thus are willing to pay for solutions that preserve that value. Asset tracking touches into the consumer segment on occasion, but has significant price pressures due to consumer expectations. Up-front hardware costs and recurring charges compare poorly to WiFi, but the ability to track devices outside of the home is an added consideration. Coupled with a less profitable problem space (“where is my suitcase?”), consumers are less likely to implement cellular solutions. We expect this to change over time as cellular costs continue to fall.

Another common term used in the asset tracking space—especially in the industrial/commercial space—is “fleet management”. This implies that there are a large number of devices under the control of a central entity. Let’s take a look at some of the common subgroups within the fleet management group:

Supply chain / Cargo

When you’re shipping high value goods from one place to another, you want to know where they are. Having regular updates not only tells you that the goods are still moving, but also when they will arrive. This enables you to more efficiently schedule logistics around those goods when they arrive (workers at the dock, ready to unload). This is a rather broad set of trackers, including on trucks, trains, ships and sometimes even on the shipping containers themselves. Getting a full picture of shipping and logistics can ensure reliability and streamline coordination (to your point around scheduling).

Performance and regulatory tracking

In December of 2017, truck fleets were required implement Electronic Logging Devices (ELD). This device tracks trucks and their drivers to ensure they are getting proper rest time while on the road to improve safety and reduce sleep related accidents. This is not the only requirement on trucks. Fleets also need to worry about the International Fuel Tax Agreement (IFTA) and Driver Vehicle Inspection Reports (DVIR), both of which are normally tracked by ELD.

All of these requirements are also encapsulated by the term “fleet monitoring” which is a more in-depth concept we will be exploring in later articles and projects.

Mileage Logger

Vehicles are their own sub-group of applications within the asset tracking space, but mileage logging is a more specific example of that. Using personal vehicles for work purposes requires better tracking to prevent abuse. A tracker will show how many miles you have driven and are reimbursable or possible to charge-off on tax forms. We have also seen vehicle tracking by insurance companies, where they offer lower premiums in exchange for understanding exactly how much the vehicle is being used.

Sharing economy

Renting a device from peer to peer requires utilization metrics and access management. These tasks extend a bit more than just “asset tracking” but the concept still hinges on understanding “the dot on the map”. Cellular tracking actually enables entirely new business models, instead of only mitigating the loss of assets. Previous models based on a central distribution point are now breaking that tether.

A great example is bike sharing moving from stationery docks to “dockless” sharing. The asset tracking happens in real time (ie. “bike #32851 is located at the corner of State and Lake”), the condition is assessed (ie. “The bike is locked and is communicating with the network”) and then access is granted to a user interacting with the app or central service (ie. “bike #32851 is unlocked for user #44669″). We see this happening for other mobile items such as cars, scooters and even properties. Once the control mechanism of sharing is a virtual entity like an app, sharing economy applications can work at a more granular level.

High Value Tracking

Construction and military equipment are high value and the owners want to ensure their assets are secure. This is the simplest version of “the dot on the map”. An asset tracker attached to a backhoe may also track the utilization of that backhoe (ie. “the backhoe operate from 0600 to 1630 on April 2nd”), but the important thing is understanding that in the off-hours that the backhoe was neither running nor leaving the construction site.

Why cellular?

The basics of asset tracking are understanding a location and transmitting it back to a central database.

The method of transmitting that location has changed as technology has evolved and more RF standards have entered the market. There are bluetooth based trackers like Tile, which depend on the network effect of enough phones in a particular area picking up a bluetooth signature and transmitting it back to the central database (regardless of if it’s your bluetooth device). Also, in the Bluetooth realm, there are “beacons” which attempt to broadcast a centralized position so that nodes around it can get a sense of space; this is often used in space constrained areas like shopping displays. There are also efforts to use LoRaWAN and time of flight calculations to find ad-hoc location, especially as super low power devices are moved around. The classic asset tracking device was a LoJack, which sends out a VHF chirp on a regular basis, allowing a transceiver to track down the misplaced item. Finally, when tracking things beyond land (ie. shipping containers), satellite tracking helps to keep devices as a dot on the map.

The above methods often rely on a cellular backhaul to the central database, regardless of the endpoint’s connectivity (bluetooth, LoRa, SigFox). This is done either through a user’s mobile phone or a gateway that handles communication with those other methods of connectivity. The dropping costs of cellular and GPS–thanks to the ubiquity of mobile phones–means endpoints can now transmit over cellular directly. By removing the screen, apps, and frivolous features of mobile phones, devices can transmit where they are in space without any added layers of connectivity on top. The shrinking size and power requirements of cellular (LTE Cat M1 and NB-IoT) means asset tracking will soon be automatic and invisible.

Accuracy

The nature of cellular connectivity and being dependent upon fixed towards gives location calculation “for free”. Using the command in our API HologramCloud.getLocation(), you can get location within a kilometer (2000 feet). Better accuracies are possible, depending on tower density and signal strength. To visualize this level of accuracy, imagine a device accurate to the level of your neighborhood: you can tell where you are in a particular block of streets.

GPS, or Global Positioning System, uses a network of satellites that transmit data to the earth on a regular basis. There are other constellations which enable similar functionality such as Galileo, Glonass, BeiDou and QZSS. When an onboard module picks up at least 3 of these signals, it triangulates position within about 5 – 20 meters (15-50 feet). More satellite signals results in greater accuracy. GPS layers another set of data on top of the tower-based location of cellular. To visualize this level of accuracy, imagine a device accurate to the level of your building: you can tell that you’re in 20 W Kinzie, but not 25 W Kinzie.

More precise location often requires even more sensor fusion. This is visible when you open a mapping program on your mobile phone (like Google Maps) and see the on-map dot shrink as it homes in on you. This is sensor fusion in action. Most phones utilize auxiliary data like wifi networks in range, GPS location info, accelerometers and a range of other possible sensors, depending on hardware device.To visualize this level of accuracy, imagine a device accurate to the level of your office: you can tell that you’re in a chair near the window, not near the door.

Fusion is also possible in embedded devices like asset trackers. External APIs, onboard sensors (ie. ultrasonic) or integrating secondary connectivity like bluetooth on-board a device can increase precision. Check out our list of cellular hardware to see where these features (and even base things like GPS) are integrated into off-the-shelf hardware.

How does Hologram work with asset tracking?

When an asset tracker is cellular, Hologram is a natural fit. You don’t want to lose track of your asset just because you move from one coverage area to the next! Our coverage in 150+ countries and over 500 carriers means your asset tracking works across borders, states, countries and even oceans!

Asset trackers benefit from low data costs, especially movement based trackers. Some devices only wake up and report their position based upon the change from one spot to the next. With pay-as-you-go (PAYG) plans, your asset tracker charges for the data sent. In this category of device, this can be a very low amount. Even the best phone plans for off-the-shelf SIMs will charge a high access fee to cellular networks. Our access fee is $0.40 per device and then charged by the kB. Fleets of thousands of devices with low data transmission using our service can have a huge cost benefit to the operators of those networks. We also have plans tailored to higher data usage, so asset trackers/fleet monitoring solutions sending back more data will benefit as well.

Low bandwidth, low power devices are rising in availability and popularity. The rise of LTE Cat M1 and NB-IoT data standards means more hardware is entering the market. Devices wake up, communicate their position, and then go back to sleep with even lower power during the transmit phase. This preserves battery and extends the lifetime of the device. Sometimes the device is never meant to recharge, simply tracking position until the battery runs out!

Our removable SIM and our eSIM covers Cat M1 and NB-IoT devices across multiple carriers. As more carriers enable this service across the world, devices using our SIM will immediately have access to these new capabilities. Our software defined networking layer enables access to this new class of cellular service as more hardware hits the market. This means using a Hologram SIM in your device fleet lowers your risk as you deploy to more locations.

Our plans going forward

Here at Hologram, we’re starting a months long assessment of asset tracking with a focus on fleet monitoring. We’ll be covering some of the more popular solutions, bringing them in house, setting them up onto our network and showcasing how we can track assets using the Hologram network.

We’ll also be creating our own DIY fleet monitoring (and asset tracking) solution. Our newest member, Moheeb Zara, will be creating a solution that you can follow along with. We’ll showcase how to construct a simple that tracks an asset using the Hologram network and reports data back to the Hologram dashboard. We hope to pull in community members building their own solutions, so if you’re interested in building your own, join our developer mailing list!

Ready to get started sooner? Check out one of our existing GPS/Asset Tracking tutorials over on our Projects page!