Tracking assets outdoors is crucial for businesses that rely on the movement of goods, equipment, and vehicles. Various technologies allow companies to monitor the location, status, speed, and direction of movement of their physical assets. Here is a brief overview of the leading tech used for tracking in the great outdoors – GPS, Cellular, LoRa, and RFID. Key distinctions include range, bandwidth, frequency, and power consumption.
Global Positioning System (GPS) is the most common technology used for outdoor tracking. This system was developed and is operated by the U.S. Department of Defense. It is used for navigation, mapping, surveying, and applications where precise locating is essential, such as tracking remote equipment or hikers’ locations.
GPS uses a network of satellites that transmit radio signals to receivers on the ground to determine position. The orbiting satellites transmit signals that allow a GPS receiver to calculate its location through trilateration – calculating its position by using three reference points from multiple satellites. Devices broadcast on at least two frequencies – L1 (1575.42 MHz) and L2 (1227.6 MHz). Newer satellites also broadcast on L5 (1176 MHz).
GPS is ideal for tracking assets that are constantly on the move and need to be monitored in real-time. These devices provide accurate data on location to within 10 to 50 feet, on speed, and direction of movement. GPS is also useful for tracking assets in remote or inaccessible areas, such as ships at sea or vehicles in the desert.
GPS tracking, however, can be expensive and may not work well in areas with poor satellite coverage such as urban canyons. Other factors which can affect location accuracy include atmospheric issues which can delay signals, and multi-path effects when a GPS signal reflects off surfaces such as buildings before reaching a receiver.
Cellular tracking devices utilize the same mobile network as smartphones. As a result, they do not require a network data plan or any additional infrastructure. The expansive coverage of mobile network providers offers a substantial footprint for cellular solutions.
The value of cellular is its ability to transmit and receive large amounts of data over significant distances. As a result, cellular is ideally suited for solutions that require the transmission of large amounts of data on a real-time basis. Applications range from fleet, railroad, cold chain, and smart cities to agricultural management.
One disadvantage of cellular is its data cost when compared to technologies such as LoRa and RFID that do not require data plans. While cellular coverage is extensive, applications in remote areas or at sea may also require alternative or complementary solutions.
Long Range Radio (LoRa) was designed for long-range communications – up to three miles (5 km) in urban areas and up to 10 miles (15 km) or greater in rural areas. LoRa uses Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) technology to transmit data over these long distances. LoRa devices operate in unlicensed spectrum – 433 MHz (Asia), 868 MHz (Europe), and 915 MHz (North America), which allows for long-range transmission without requiring a license or network plan.
This technology is ideal for tracking assets that are spread over a wide area and need long-range, low power communications such as utility meters. LoRa devices can be battery-powered and transmit data up to several kilometers from a gateway. This makes LoRa ideal for tracking shipping containers, pallets, and equipment in large industrial yards or ports. LoRa can also be used to track assets in remote or rural areas where cellular coverage is not available.
One disadvantage of LoRa is its limited data transmission capacity. While many IoT sensors do not need to send large amounts of data, for applications that provide continuous or periodic large transmissions, LoRa may not provide the bandwidth or low latency required.
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is a technology that uses radio waves to identify and track tags attached to objects. RFID comes in two types: active and passive. Active RFID tags utilize a battery while passive tags do not. As such, passive RFID is most often used for indoor asset tracking due to the shorter range of battery-free technology. However, many firms have found innovative ways to use RFID, as it is one of the lower-cost tracking options.
Several companies manufacture “ultra-long range” passive RFID tags that can read up to 300 feet and more. These tags are typically large (1-2 feet long) and are designed to be mounted on shipping containers or yard storage locations. Other firms have paired RFID with GPS to optimally track assets and determine location. A forklift with an embedded RFID reader will read RFID tags that it comes into contact with and pair that information with its location from GPS. With this approach, this technology can be used both indoors and outdoors.
RFID is ideal for tracking assets in a specific area, such as a warehouse or production facility. It is frequently used to track assets that move in and out of an area, such as shipping containers or trucks entering and leaving a port or distribution center. RFID is also useful for tracking assets that require a high level of security or where manual tracking is not feasible, such as for high-value assets or hazardous materials.
The choice of technology for tracking in the great outdoors depends on a business’ specific requirements. GPS is ideal for precise, real-time monitoring of assets that are frequently on the move, while LoRa is suitable for tracking assets spread over a wide area. Cellular is used for outdoor solutions, especially mobile solutions, that require high bandwidth. RFID is best suited for tracking assets in a specific area or yard. Each technology has advantages and disadvantages. Businesses should choose the technology that best fits their requirements and budget.
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