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Roundup: Tracking Technology is Paving the Way to New Places

4 days ago by Adrian Gibbons

A trend that is gaining momentum is asset tracking. From smart fabrics to the ‘island of lost keys,’ the IoT-based asset tracking technologies pave the way for new commercial markets. 

After much discussion over the past year, the idea of asset tracking with low-power wireless IoT devices might seem common to hardware engineers. The novelty of being able to track a parcel via a dashboard on the web passé. However, existing technology has a way of inspiring further innovation. 

 

Examples of different asset tracking technology and general specs. Image used courtesy of Wiser Systems

 

This article will look at three innovations that shake up the use cases for asset tracking IoT technology in this industry roundup. These new use cases open the doors for new business ventures, consumer convenience, and asset protection.

The press releases, which form the basis of this industry roundup, are:

The first innovation this article will dive into is a project with trackers being woven into "smart" fabric.

 

Carnegie Mellon University Develops “TextileSense”

Recently, research from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) has yielded interesting results in tracking technology. The team has termed their experiment as "TextileSense," which combines its electrical and computer engineering and mechanical engineering department's efforts and skills.  

 

TextileSense embeds NFC antennas in everyday fabrics.

TextileSense embeds NFC antennas in everyday fabrics. Image used courtesy of Wang et al

 

In entering the international conference called Information Processing in Sensor Networks (IPSN) 2021, with their work on TextileSense, they not only won best paper but, as their video demonstrates, they created an interesting way to produce tactile control while sitting on a couch. The demonstrator controls a television, lights, detects the movement of a stuffed animal (toy), and finally illustrates pose estimation. 

TextileSense is based on near-field connectivity (NFC), with all its built-in advantages (privacy, low power) and disadvantages (range), which are structured to form a MIMO beamforming system. The technology uses a data-driven model to detect the voltage stimulus in the coils of the NFC antennas within a 20 mm 3D space. 

 

A chart of the cumulative distribution functions (CDF) vs localization error in cm.

A chart of the cumulative distribution functions (CDF) vs localization error in cm. Image used courtesy of Wang et al

 

According to the research, some of the existing limitations on this smart fabric include a maximum number of tagged items in a given space (~4) and the inability to deal with small spacing (~1.5 cm) due to coil coupling NFC antennas. 

Moving from smart fabric to asset tracking, we'll look into what innovations a Canadian startup called BeWhere is aiming to improve the tracking industry.

 

The Heart of BeMini: The nRF52840 SoC

At the heart of the new BeMini tracker from BeWhere is Nordic Semiconductor’s nRF52840 Bluetooth Low-Energy system-on-chip.

The BeMini utilizes numerous sensors, including light, temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure, in addition to the location-based services. It is capable of communication with GPS, Wi-Fi, and cellular networks. 

In the release, Alban Hoxha, CTO of BeWhere, stated that "The most important hardware features of Nordic's nRF52840 for BeMini were the powerful Arm CPU capacity, large memory capacity, Bluetooth 5.2 support, and low power consumption."

 

The new BeMini asset tracker from BeWhere.

The new BeMini asset tracker from BeWhere. Image used courtesy of Nordic Semiconductor

 

BeWhere's innovation in asset tracking is all about breadth. Beginning with fleet management tracking trucks and then building into the realm of asset protection for construction equipment and individual items.

From the hardware perspective, selecting the nRF52840 as the heart of the BeMini seems to make sense. The BeMini comes with an 830 mAh battery (compared with a 5000 mAh in a cell phone), resulting in tradeoffs in battery weight/size and operational time. 

Nordic's nRF52810 only draws a radio current of 14.8 mA with a TX power of +8 dBm. This power requirement means that the tracker could run for ~55 hours before requiring a recharge (excluding any other system requirements). 

Lastly, a quick look at the consumer applications for asset tracking from Samsung and NXP with the SmartThings Find service and ultra-wideband (UWB) radio.

 

Samsung’s SmartThings Find Technology

Samsung is expanding its SmartThings Find technology with NXP's UWB SR040, a secure UWB solution. The hardware, Galaxy SmartTag+, communicates with the SmartThings Find service application. 

 

The Galaxy SmartTag+ device.

The Galaxy SmartTag+ device. Image used courtesy of Samsung

 

Taking advantage of two NXP Trimension chipsets, the QN9090 (BLE) and the preproduction SR040 (UWB), the SmartTag+ claims to offer highly accurate UWB tag localization optimized for battery-powered applications. 

 

 

Another important specification of this device using the SR040 is that NXP, as a founding member, has ensured that the SR040 is following the FiRa Consortium certification requirements which increase the viability of this chipset's use as a UWB device. 

 

Getting Excited About Asset Tracking Trends

The ability to control your television or lights with smart fabrics sounds a bit fictitious but would make everyday living a bit easier. Extending beyond CMU's initial demonstration, the ability to determine if a human is upright or prone on a carpet could also be critical to saving a member of our aging demographics. 

BeWhere is working hard to get asset tracking into every industry, from logistics and construction to medical services and government. The new BeMini takes advantage of the low-power BLE onboard nRF52840 SoC for the powerful ARM processor and BLE software stack. 

Samsung's SmartThings Find technology offers unparalleled convenience for locating lost items with your phone. The ability to track your assets, be they material or familial, gives consumers an uncanny peace of mind. NXP's UWB technology brings a level of accuracy that BLE cannot achieve on its own.

With all of these interesting innovations taking place in the realm of tracking technology, there are sure to be even more creative examples in the near future.