Tuning In to RFID and Wi-Fi

Tuning In to RFID and Wi-Fi

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Written By Eric Sandler

By Gerry Blackwell

June 18, 2008

Worldwide market leader AeroScout believes Wi-Fi can push RFID into the mainstream.

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Worldwide market leader AeroScout believes Wi-Fi can push RFID into the mainstream.

Back in 2003, when AeroScout and a few competitors started making Wi-Fi RFID tags, RFID tracking was already an established—if still relatively new-fangled—technology. Wi-Fi was the interloper, the new kid on the block. Existing systems operated on other frequencies, with other radio technologies.

A lot has changed in five years. Today, according to AeroScout director of marketing Josh Slobin, Wi-Fi is poised to finally push RFID into the mainstream. And his company expects to be in good position to ride the wave since it already dominates the Wi-Fi segment of the market.

The entire active RFID industry is maturing in other ways too, moving beyond the simple asset tracking applications with which it began. AeroScout, with its Unified Asset Visibility platform and recently announced partnership with Cisco Systems, believes it can play a leadership role there as well.

“Wi-Fi RFID has been very successful and has actually helped spur growth in the [active] RFID industry,” Slobin says. “It’s changed the way location tracking is done.”

AeroScout has several hundred installations around the world, and has deployed hundreds of thousands of tags, the miniature devices that send out radio beacons used by active RFID tracking systems to determine their location. It shipped 100,000 tags in 2006 alone.

The company is privately held and doesn’t reveal financial data, but Gabi Daniely, AeroScout’s vice president of product strategy, says the company has been growing at “a very fast pace—something approximating doubling of revenues annually.”

Dominant market share

According to the most recent worldwide market data available from In-Stat, AeroScout accounted for about 89% of the Wi-Fi RFID tags shipped in 2006. In-Stat estimated the Wi-Fi tag market at about $8.4 million in 2006 and predicted it would reach $21.8 million in 2008, and $110.6 million by 2011.

Wi-Fi is still a small part of the larger RFID market, but Daniely says that is changing. In fact, he believes the In-Stat projections are low because they don’t take into account a surge in growth since an “inflection point” for Wi-Fi RFID about a year ago. The reason for the sudden uptick: the simple fact that Wi-Fi has been so widely deployed. 

“IT managers understand now that they can leverage their existing Wi-Fi networks,” Daniely says. “They’re justifying deployment [of RFID] based on the fact that they can use the infrastructure they already have in place—versus having to put in a separate overlay network.”

“They can achieve the same result [with Wi-Fi] at half the cost [of other RFID solutions] and in half the time,” says Slobin. “So why would they even consider anything else.”

Asset tracking for now continues to be the killer app. The technology is used everywhere from mines to hospitals to schools, to track the whereabouts of everything from laptops to giant front-end loaders to wandering Alzheimer patients.

Multiple Wi-Fi access points receive a beacon from the RFID tag and relay information about it to a server that calculates location based on a couple of methods—the strength of the signal as received (Received Signal Strength Indication or RSSI) and the time the signal arrived at different APs (Time Difference of Arrival or TDOA).

One of AeroScout’s competitive advantages, the company says, is that its technology uses whichever technique best suits the application and environment, whereas competitors only use one or the other.

RFID hotbeds

Health care and manufacturing in particular have become huge growth areas for AeroScout. Earlier this year, the company announced a string of deployments at hospitals.

“For hospitals it’s basically a no-brainer,” Daniely says. “A high percentage have been deploying Wi-Fi, and now they’re looking for ways to leverage them by adding innovative applications, whether it be voice over Wi-Fi or locationing.”

The company also announced two new deals with medical technology suppliers that will now use AeroScout’s “healthcare visibility solutions” to enhance their own products.

Hill-Rom is a supplier of intelligent hospital bed systems and other medical technology. Patient Care Technology Systems (PCTS) makes workflow automation software for health care providers, including software for patient and asset tracking.

About a third of AeroScout’s deployments are in health care, a third in manufacturing, a third in logistics, transportation, and other application areas.

Beyond asset tracking

But increasingly, those deployments use the AeroScout technology for more than just asset tracking. In many cases, the same infrastructure is used now to transmit additional information about assets—and people—besides their location.

It could be telemetry data collected by sensors, especially temperature sensors. It could be status information—is the device on or off and in which operating mode, how fast is it going, etc.?

One of AeroScout’s most successful health care applications, for example, sends data about the temperature inside refrigerators and freezers used to store drugs and other medical materials. “The sensoring network runs on top of the location network,” Daniely explains.

Hospitals are required by regulation to check refrigerators at least twice a day to ensure temperatures have not gone outside parameters for safe storage of contents. Manual checking was labor intensive, staff sometimes neglected to do it and it didn’t necessarily uncover all the problems.

With the AeroScout technology, temperature data is sent every few minutes. Operators receive alerts immediately if a unit goes out of compliance. Some early users discovered that twice-a-day manual checks could easily miss some out-of-compliance situations, such as during refrigerator defrost cycles. They were easily detected with continuous automated checking using the AeroScout technology.

The company is also currently working on a refinement to its health care asset tracking application that would not only locate an infusion pump, but also transmit its operating state.

“So now hospital staff won’t just be able to search for a pump,” Daniely says. “They can search specifically for pumps that are not in use. Too often they get to a pump [after locating it using RFID] only to find it’s in use so they can’t retrieve it.”

AeroScout also provides choke point detection capabilities. Exciter devices trigger the tags to transmit a beacon. This could be used to pinpoint the location of a specific item in a crowded, constrained space using a handheld device incorporating the exciter. Or it could be  be used to trigger alerts as a tag passes through a choke point such as a doorway or gate.

AeroScout’s Unified Asset Visibility software platform integrates basic tracking with these advanced functions. And more advanced functions are coming, including GPS.

“We see customers out there with a really broad set of needs and they don’t want to use four or five different technologies to meet those needs,” says Daniely. “They’re looking for a single platform to integrate all this data, which is what we can give them with Unified Asset Visibility.”

Marrying a giant

AeroScout also recently announced a deepening of its relationship with Cisco Systems. Under a new agreement, AeroScout’s Location Engine Software will be integrated with the network giant’s Cisco 3300 Series Mobility Services Engine (MSE).

MSE is an appliance-based platform for delivering mobile services in an enterprise. Services include capturing contextual information—location, temperature, availability—and integrating it into business processes. These are areas where the AeroScout technology will be used.

But MSE also provides services such as adaptive wireless intrusion prevention, seamless mobile device roaming between cellular and Wi-Fi networks, and centralized provisioning, security, and management of mobile devices.

The importance for Cisco of integrating the AeroScout technology, Slobin says, is that it will now be able to use MSE to deliver Wi-Fi RFID both indoors and outdoors in harsh environments—because of AeroScout’s use of both RSSI and TDOA locationing techniques. The significance for AeroScout? Potentially much greater.

“Every tag tracking application of the Cisco Mobility Services Engine will use AeroScout,” Daniely says.

Hitching your wagon to the dominant player in the industry is never a bad thing. But is AeroScout over optimistic about the role for Wi-Fi—and by extension its own role—in the unfolding active RFID market?

There are some applications, such as vehicle tracking, for which Wi-Fi will never be suitable, but AeroScout’s basic value proposition rings true. It has to be easier, cheaper and faster to deploy RFID on an existing Wi-Fi network than to build a separate dedicated network.

Gerry Blackwell is a veteran technology journalist and a frequent contributor to Wi-FiPlanet. He is based in Canada.

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