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Can the Internet of Things Be Used for Lost Object Detection?

Posted By IOT Journal, 09.07.2016

If so, how would be the IoT be useful for this purpose?

—Name withheld


How one might go about leveraging Internet of Things technologies to find lost objects—or, in many use cases, to prevent items from getting lost in the first place—depends on a long list of variables. Here are some key ones:

• Presumably, these things are lost because they are moved around quite often, or are very small, or often change custody. The things you want to track might only fit one of these descriptions, or all of them. That's not important.

• Presumably, you care about not losing these things because they have value, either because each discrete thing is expensive (infusion pumps or other medical devices in hospitals, for example) or because a large enough volume of these things are lost often enough that their replacement costs are high (reusable totes, trays or pallets in a supply chain, for instance). This part is important: If you're tracking discrete, valuable things, you will likely be willing to spend more money on a tracking system than if you're tracking many less valuable things that you want to track in aggregate, or to keep within a set geofence.

• Another key variable is where in the world the things that you want to track are located. Are they in a warehouse? In a vast outdoor lot? Or might they be in either of those places, as well as in the middle of nowhere on a desert highway? Or north of the Arctic Circle? Or deep in a jungle?

• Finally, is it possible to add a tracking device on the thing you're hoping to track? If not, could you retrofit the thing somehow to accommodate a tracking device? Or could you redesign the thing to integrate a tracking device into it? Or does it have integrated electronics that you can leverage to track its location? Or could you put the thing you're trying to track into some kind of container when it's in the place or places where you'd like to track it?

The bad news: If the answer to all of these questions is "no," then I don't think you'll have much luck using the IoT to track the things you want to track. The good news: If the answer to any of those questions is "yes," then there is at least one and probably multiple types of technology that you can use to track those items.

If the things are small but always kept within a defined indoor space, adding a passive or battery-powered RFID tag to each thing and then using RFID readers to run constant or periodic inventory counts of the space is a great way to keep track of things. These aren't necessarily IoT technologies, but that hardly matters if it gets the job done.

If the things are moved into and out of a defined space often (which is probably why they end up lost in the first place), you'll probably want to use what's called a real=time location system (RTLS), which generally consists of battery-powered tags that periodically transmit their unique identifiers to a network of readers. The are many types of RTLS tags and readers on the market, which have a range of capabilities, use a variety of radio signal processing techniques to power their location capabilities, and come in a wide range of prices. (I'd suggest reading through some of the stories about RTLS at the RFID Journal website.)

Increasingly, Bluetooth beacons are being used for RTLS applications as well. This is an emerging space. And if you want to track not only location but also conditions (temperature, for instance), many RTLS solutions come with integrated sensors that can accomplish that as well.

If you want to track things that are not generally indoors or that are moved across great distances, and if you want to track them while they are in transit, you'll need to look at either the use of tags that communicate over a cellular network, a satellite network (that's usually only for things that are in very remote areas without cellular coverage) or via a low-power wide area network (LPWAN). There is a great deal of development and standardization and rollout activity in the LPWAN space right now.

We have written many stories about LPWAN and also cellular network systems used for tracking things. LPWAN is a cheaper alternative to most cellular-based tracking systems, but the amount of data these networks can handle is very low compared to cellular networks. Now, the telecommunications industry is rolling out new types of cellular tags, under the "Cat M1" and "Cat NB1" monikers, to compete directly with LPWAN.

—Mary Catherine O'Connor, Editor, IOT Journal

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