May 29, 2023

RTLS Systems: Location systems taken to the next level

One of the great challenges facing organisations in various sectors is the optimisation of operations, particularly when they combine digitisation with increasingly complex asset management or the need to reduce storage and logistics costs, in a context that demands ever greater speed.

What is RTLS?

RTLS (Real-time Location Systems) are an interesting way to optimise the management of asset handling and transport in multiple environments. In essence, such systems allow real-time digital localisation of the movements of physical elements in large enclosed spaces (thus avoiding the obvious limitations of traditional geo-positioning systems).

RTLS makes use of radio frequency technologies as well as wireless devices such as location tags or mobile phones. In this way, position data is obtained, allowing, among other things, live visualisations of object locations on an indoor map, as well as their integration into workflows and automated systems, or into asset management and supply chain solutions.

The functions of RTLS, beyond GPS

It is estimated that GPS technology has generated more than $1.4 trillion for the private sector industry in the US since it became available in the 80s. RTLS, on the other hand, seeks to unlock for the indoors the same location value that GPS technology has created for the outdoors. Its use is critical for Industry 4.0, IoT, innovation in sectors such as healthcare, manufacturing and warehousing, increasing efficiency, transforming physical operations by improving security and boosting business performance.

RTLS can be used to fulfil a variety of functions, especially asset or people tracking in different fields such as industry, transport, inventory control, logistics, material tracking, personnel security, indoor navigation, luggage location, sports analysis, or missing persons monitoring.

How does RTLS work?

The actual operation of RTLS can vary, but they all have in common a network of connected hardware and software components, which track the location of people and objects within a defined area. RTLS is mainly based on radio frequency technologies that allow wireless communication between a group of transmitting, receiving or transceiving devices.

The transmitting device sends radio frequency coded data transmissions or location "blips" at a continuous interval. The receivers are deployed at fixed locations and receive and read the signals emitted by the transmitting device. The location data is then sent to a location engine software to calculate the position of the object or person. Once the software has received the data, there are different techniques to determine its status with greater or lesser accuracy (we can mention those based on the time of flight of the signal - TWR or TDoA - , on the angle at which the signal is received - AoA - or on signal strength, or RSSI).

The components of a RTLS may vary depending on application requirements such as accuracy, latency, range or complexity of deployment. Most RTLS share several devices, among which we can distinguish anchors (deployed in fixed positions that detect, locate and read the signals transmitted by the transmitting equipment to exchange them with the location engine that will calculate the exact location), tags (which, attached to people, assets or objects, serve to delimit their location by sending signals to the anchors), IoT sensors (which provide data to enrich the intelligence of the system), RTLS gateways and, in particular, the location engines and the management platform, which convert all this avalanche of data into asset location intelligence and tools to suggest optimisation of their location or their transfer from one place to another in the factory, shopping centre, hospital or warehouse.

The importance of accuracy in RTLS

Considering that we are talking about systems whose combination of technologies makes it possible to achieve location accuracies of up to 20 cm in the case of UWB (Ultra Wide Band), their application is particularly suitable for environments that are particularly stressed in terms of their need to optimise the paths of various assets, and particularly in infrastructures whose layout or construction (as in the obvious case of a factory) makes geolocation by traditional means impossible or too inaccurate.

To continue with the example of industry, we can mention the location of critical assets and people in the plant, the optimisation of workflows - including the analysis of movements and transition and picking times -, the calculation of distances and the issuing of alerts (for example, on access to restricted areas), PRL information in real time, or integration services with AGV (Autonomous Guided Vehicle) solutions, among many other uses.

But the usefulness of RTLS is not limited to the world of industry; in fact, one of the most dynamic applications of this type of technology is likely to be in the health sector, especially in the optimisation of healthcare spaces (e.g. the layout of hospital emergency departments by analysing patterns of patient movement and concentration), or in the control of valuable, scarce and fast-moving assets (e.g. clinical furniture or surgical equipment). Wherever accuracy, speed of reaction and the availability of data analysis tools to optimise the movement of assets are important, RTLS is a clear future investment.

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