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  • Writer's pictureBidvest Mobility Marketing Department

Shining a Light on Everything: The Benefits (and Limitations) of Both Wireless and Location Technologies May Not Be What You Think

It was with a sense of exhilaration that I entered through the tall glass doors of the impressive RheinMain Congress Center building in Wiesbaden, Germany, for the Wireless IOT Tomorrow exhibition. My quest: to submerse myself in wireless technology and discover all I could about the invisible world of electromagnetic communication.  

Through a mixture of conversations, seminars and observations, I was enlightened to both the capabilities and limitations of ultra-high frequency (UHF), ultrawideband (UWB) and LPWAN - including mioty, a software-based low-power, wide-area network (LPWAN) protocol that is billed as “the standardised wireless connectivity solution for Massive IoT." I also experienced artificial intelligence (AI) writing apps in real time plus learnt about many different location solutions use cases, from electrical vehicle battery passports through flood warnings to military maintenance programs.

 As I staffed the Zebra stand, my first conversation of note was with a representative from the UWB Alliance. We talked through the electromagnetic wave real estate occupying our world, invisible to the naked eye. His analogy was that of a super busy air space. Planes occupying different heights in the sky representing how wavelengths occupy space.

 Militaries and governments from each country have highly secured and controlled sections of the electromagnetic universe. Then the cellular companies occupy a well-organised part where users (i.e., you and I) pay for the privilege to use the waves. Wi-Fi access is free (once you pay to put the infrastructure in place) but has space limitations. UWB is the wild west. Every wavelength is up for grabs but with legislative restrictions that prevent anyone from shouting too loud in a very noisy environment. This surprised me a bit considering how much I hear about UWB every day.

My informer compared UWB to a sports hall where people are only allowed to whisper. Initially, people arrive and can whisper to one another with ease. As the hall fills with people, there are more and more whispers until you can't hear the person you are talking to. Legislation gives a person the ability to talk to others a little bit louder so they can be heard above the whisper – or in a way that can be interpreted through all the background clamour. Like using sign language, maybe to accept a drink at a busy party.

 I found the analogy interesting, particularly in that Zebra utilises low-frequency tech to monitor the on-field movements of National Football League (NFL) – American football – players and balls. Each player is equipped with a UWB beacon on each shoulder pad that communicates location data 20 times per second. This high frequency, high-quality location data provides detailed player statistics, helping coaches coach and fans better understand and discuss player performance.

 Ultra-high frequency RFID is the lead technology Zebra sells when it comes to location solutions, and our stand was a treasure trove of RFID hardware and software that are woven together to solve an abundance of asset visibility conundrums for our customers.

New RFID portals with patented wave antenna technology for ever more precise reads were at the doorway to the stand, representing their stance at dock doors where they traditionally check pallets and parcels moving in and out of distribution centres. Zebra printers printed off RFID labels to adorn our Zebra teddy giveaways that could then be tracked around the stand using RFID readers emitting ever-increasing 'beeps' as they located the missing mascots. We also showed handheld mobile computers with RFID readers mounted on them, picking up the many RFID labels sitting around the stand, emulating what a store or warehouse associate would experience in a real-life stock take. It was quite a sight to see.

But I’m a curious person and, after speaking with the rep from the UWB Alliance, I wondered what else I didn’t know about this technology that has become so commonplace in my daily life, both professionally and personally. I was hungry to learn more about how RFID compares to other location technologies and the role that different wireless technologies play in the wide world of information sharing.

At one of the many engaging and educational seminars I was able to attend, I learnt about mioty (my iot!). How it cleverly splits data packets into sub-packets, submits them over time to evade interference, and then algorithms reassemble the data on receipt. This low-energy technology can work off battery power for many years and is the basis of a revolutionary flood tracking project to which we were introduced. The project shares data associated with rainfall and water levels at a variety of geo locations which are then compared with historical data to predict where and when flooding is likely to occur, helping guide evasive action and protect people and property.

Zebra Systems Engineer Dierk Oelheim was also supporting at the event, so I spoke with him in a bid to try to tease out more information about these new (to me) data-sharing mechanisms. Dierk advised me that:

“Low power wide area networks (LPWANs) are really helpful for many long-range IOT deployments as they cover wide distances, are low cost, and need very little power.

A common use case is for example animal tracking or transmitting sensor data. They can operate at nearly the same frequencies as UHF passive RFID, but are battery powered as opposed to activated by waves. They can transfer things very slowly hence don’t need much energy. The problem with them is operating in the licence-free spectrum, where they get impacted by interference. If one LPWAN operates at the same frequency as another, there’s a good chance they will interrupt one another leading to data loss. LORAWAN – a LOng RAnge WAN – is a lead LPWAN for scaled IOT connections but it is easily impacted by interference. If 10% of the wave gets knocked out, the signal just won’t get through.

The mioty protocol solved some of LORAWAN’s interference issues as only 50% of the waves need to get through for accurate communication. Quite a difference. This makes it great for static sensor data such as temperature or humidity data, and why flood tracking makes a great use case. If the sensor is at a known location, only sensor output needs to be shared in very small amounts over long periods.

We [Zebra] have worked on stillage units for automotive customers with LPWAN beacons transmitting data over very long distances. They send very small pieces of data so no triangulation is needed, similar to how cellular phones work.”

Having learnt so much about the different wave communications, my mind quickly pivoted to the way data could be communicated to and from different machines. The timing was perfect, as shortly after I witnessed a speaker writing an app for managing inputs from fixed RFID readers at multiple locations, in real time, utilising AI! It was an example of efficiency on a mind-blowing scale. Could this spell the start of the end for programmers?


Though, I will admit that no matter how many fascinating tech applications I heard about, the one that I think needs more attention is UHF. It just seems so severely underutilised in business and society despite its maturity.

Sure, it was interesting to hear how product development, market intelligence and future legislation have been driving forces for electrical vehicle passports. I was also pleased to see just how much end-to-end visibility via UHF RFID tagging and monitoring is going to shine the spotlight on all elements of the supply chain – certifying that ethical mining practices are followed, ensuring correct component assembly, providing battery history at resale, and helping to execute safe, legal recycling.

It was also interesting to see how the German military is leveraging location solutions to optimise vehicle repairs by tracking and tracing components. The time spent not looking for things, at a repair centre the size of a football pitch, has massively improved efficiency – from which I’m sure every government agency, utility, or military would benefit.

However, these live use cases just felt like tip of the spear. “What opportunities are being missed?” I wondered.

So, I reverted back to Dierk to reflect further on what the different technologies had to offer. He informed me that:

“There are many different ways to track people and assets, all with pros and cons. Shorter wavelengths may be more accurate but need more energy to travel distance. But that’s by no means the full story as energy can be controlled by making pulses frequent or infrequent. Tags can be battery powered which makes them more expensive or wave activated which requires reader infrastructure.

UHF passive RFID tags are very low cost as tags are activated by transmitted waves and don’t need batteries. They provide point in time location data – i.e. when an item passes an antenna, down to 1m. It is limited by range, so infrastructure is needed and over a wide area. This might be extensive. But once it’s in place, it’s there for a very long time.

UWB is a highly accurate active means to locate, but that battery dependency makes it more expensive and burdened with a finite life. WhereNet ISO24730 can be used inside and outside over long ranges, with 1-3m accuracy, but it is still battery reliant and needs infrastructure. GPS relies on satellites, so no infrastructure required, but this restricts it to outdoor use limited to 5ms. So many different variables and decisions to make based on your specific use cases, right now, and evolving into the future.”

 Dierk’s explanation was enlightening but I could see how, with so many technologies available, it can be confusing to know which direction to go. I could also see how software had the capacity to bring everything together: location solutions software (like Zebra MotionWorks) working with passive RFID and UWB as well as Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth Low Energy and WhereNet. It is this umbrella-type software that has the capability to leverage the very best of all the useable spectrum.

So, in summary, I experienced how the wireless internet of things continues to develop at lightning-speed. So many different types of location technology are there for the taking, turning the light on products, people, and processes. A whole new generation of data looks set to illuminate bottlenecks, weed out inefficiencies and drive new opportunities. With visibility of your everything, I am certain things are about to get really efficient, really fast.

 If you’re not sure how best to address your end-to-end visibility challenges, I work with a lot of really smart people at Zebra who would be happy to talk to you and help however they can. They also have a lot of connections in the industry – with partners and industry alliance leaders/members – who I trust will have ideas on how you can leverage this technology. I know Dierk does for sure. Please do get in touch if you’d like to know more.

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