Keeping Track of Assets with Cloud-Based Cellular Location Technology

Location monitoring is particularly vital to the supply chain industry, with its success – or otherwise – hinging on the accurate, real-time tracking of assets as they travel around the world.

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Location monitoring is particularly vital to the supply chain industry, with its success – or otherwise – hinging on the accurate, real-time tracking of assets as they travel around the world. Technology is obviously of crucial importance to achieve this, and solutions that leverage Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), Cell-ID, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are common. However, for various reasons these tools are no longer fit for purpose.

Those that come under the umbrella of GNSS, such as GPS, BeiDou in China, Galileo in Europe and QZSS in Japan, typically have poor signal penetration meaning the levels of accuracy they provide indoors or in built-up areas fluctuate. Being able to provide real-time location tracking anywhere critical assets go is key, as this is when businesses or consumers want insights into when things are lost or wherever they go from start to finish. As most commerce takes place indoors, in the back of trucks and dense areas, GNSS solutions lack the ability to provide accurate visibility.

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are commonly used for indoor positioning, such as locating goods for consumer applications where cell phones and WiFi are prevalent. While they can work with other wide-area technologies, such as GNSS, to provide tracking in more urban environments, they are not without their flaws. Supply chains are sprawling, and assets need to be tracked from end-to-end. However, these solutions have short ranges and low penetration, as they are limited to the availability of Wi-Fi access points or Bluetooth beacons.

Similarly, Cell-ID solutions, which position assets relative to the latitude and longitude of cellular base stations, have problems. Their accuracy is limited to thousands of meters, driven by the limited capabilities of the previous generations of technology available to the industry.

So, what’s the answer to supply chain challenges? The solution lies with cloud-based cellular location technology, or Cloud-Location over Cellular (C-LoC).

Defining C-LoC

Cloud-based cellular location is similar to Cell-ID in that signals from nearby cellular base stations are used to pinpoint the location of IoT tracking devices, however, it represents a vast upgrade. Here’s how it works for Massive IoT applications across a wide area network (WAN):

  1. An IoT tracking device attached to the asset collects location data from surrounding 4G or 5G cellular infrastructure – even if the device is within a package, indoors, or within a vehicle. It does this regardless of mobile carrier and without the need for additional infrastructure.
  2. The device compresses the signals it receives from the cell towers into a small data package that is forwarded to the cloud. This means processing complexity doesn’t remain at the edge on the IoT device but is instead conducted in the cloud itself, which helps preserve battery and enhances security.
  3. A cloud-based Application Programming Interface (API) then processes the data packet and deciphers the location of the device based on the base station ID data it receives.
  4. The user – for example, a logistics company – receives the location of the IoT tracking device, and therefore the asset, in real-time with uninterrupted visibility. This is even if it moves from the warehouse floor and starts a journey across the world.

Secure, Accurate and Global Benefits

There are three key benefits to this type of location tracking technology: security, accuracy and global reach. Starting with security, as private location information isn’t calculated or stored on the IoT tracking device itself, cloud-based cellular location technology protects this sensitive data and puts it back in the hands of the user. This means the devices are less susceptible to jamming, spoofing or device-based cyberattacks that Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or GPS have been found to suffer.

Next is accuracy. Cloud-based cellular location technology doesn’t need carrier permissions, meaning it can capture signals from base stations regardless of carrier, greatly improving the location data it can pull from. This means that, depending on the specifications of the IoT network, it can achieve location accuracy of about 100 meters on a 4G network. This makes it over 15-20x more accurate than Cell-ID and in the same realm as Wi-Fi, without being restricted to indoor tracking only. In essence, this equates to address-level accuracy, making it suitable for a broad range of supply chain and logistics use cases.

Finally, cloud-based location technology provides global tracking capabilities. Being software-based, there is no need to deploy new infrastructure or hardware, such as Bluetooth beacons, Wi-Fi access points or GPS satellites. It is also not tied to, nor does it require, any integration with the cellular operator networks. As it is not siloed by network – macro or private – it is able to provide location based on the world’s existing cellular infrastructure. Therefore, it can provide accurate location tracking wherever an asset travels globally.

What The Future Holds

As the 5G network rollout continues, the benefits cloud-based cellular location technology already has on 4G will only become more profound. 5G will open up new capabilities for cellular location tracking by enabling the positioning data it provides to become even more precise.

The rise of 5G Critical IoT networks will create an era of sub-meter accuracy indoors, with private networks down to below three meters outdoors. This will not only enhance the performance and reduce the latency of existing asset tracking use cases, but open up a new realm of possibilities for more critical use cases, such as robots within a warehouse or manufacturing plant. 

The appetite for more precise, secure and scalable location tracking is growing among enterprises across multiple sectors. As technology leaders in those businesses come to understand the benefits of cloud-based cellular location, and how 5G will improve the performance of this technology even further, it is only a matter of time before we see global rollouts.