An indoor solution to wireless electronic asset tracking that uses digital radio-frequency technology to locate personnel and property has been developed by PinPoint Corp., a fledgling company based in Bedford, Mass.
Outdoor tracking of vehicles, personnel and equipment has long been available using global positioning system technology, but GPS signals from orbiting satellites are too weak to penetrate walls and other obstacles. The technology for indoor tracking also has been available, but only at such a great expense that the systems have not been financially feasible to end users.
“The problem has been to create an inexpensive tag device with a long enough range that it would be useful,” said Armando Viteri, president of PinPoint. “We came up with a way to do it now for $35, and eventually down to a few dollars per tag.”
PinPoint’s flagship product, the 3D-ID system, uses application-specific RF tags about the size of a credit card that are attached to each person or object to be identified. The so-called L3RF tags have batteries that are good for an average of one to three years, and depending on the battery strength, have a range detection of 100 or more feet.
PinPoint is miniaturizing the whole tagging device, and it should be shrunk to the size of a single chip by next year, Viteri said.
“There are a couple of things I like about [the PinPoint product]. First, they’re driving the cost down to pretty low levels. They’ve dropped the price point by something like 50 percent,” said Bob Egan, research director for the Gartner Group.
“Second, it allows users to buy based on the granularity of the infrastructure,” Egan continued. “It’s pretty dynamic.”
PinPoint’s patent-pending Transponding Chirping Architecture based on pseudo-noise technology was key in reducing the cost of indoor tracking, said Viteri. The tags “sleep” most of the time and periodically wake up to “chirp” a low-power transmission, creating a Time Division Multiple Access scheme that helps maintain the long battery life, Viteri said.
The 3D-ID system also leverages a company’s existing Information Technology infrastructure with PinPoint’s asset-tracking software and software development kit to use the corporate intranet or Internet, thereby further reducing the cost of installing an indoor tracking system.
The RF signals sent by the tags are picked up by antennas attached with coaxial cables to a cell controller, which the local area network server recognizes the same as it would any other peripheral. The cell controller can accommodate up to 16 antennas, providing coverage for a very large area.
The antennas and cell controller together work like a cellular phone system. As the tagged object or person moves through the building, its signal is handed off from one antenna to the next. The 3D-ID system provides scalable resolution allowing end users to choose how specific their coverage needs to be. The more antennas in the system, the higher scale the resolution.
“[PinPoint] has taken the operating concepts behind wireless LANs, global positioning systems and radio-frequency tagging and identification, and formed them into a new patent-pending solution,” said Rajiv Kumar, research manager for the Industrial Research Group of Frost & Sullivan.
For example, if a patient was admitted to the emergency room with symptoms of a heart attack, a nurse could go to the nearest computer and inquire where the nearest defibrillating unit is located very specifically. The location system could tell the nurse where the nearest unit is located because the nurse is wearing a RF identification tag, and the defibrillator is tagged as well. The system also could tell the nurse the location of the on-call doctor.
The computer draws a map-either in two or three dimensions-and drops a dot on the map showing the location of the inquired object. Three-dimension maps are used for warehousing applications, so inquiry results can show that the object is located down aisle three, on top of the second-to-the-last pallet in the aisle.
The RF ID tags worn by people are incorporated into ID tags regularly worn on shirts or belts, and have a panic button on them that triggers an alarm that would bring help in dangerous situations, for example, with psychiatric patients. Babies in the hospital nursery also can be tagged to prevent a kidnapping.
There also are paired-tag applications, such as pairing the RF tag on a laptop computer with the RF tags of employees that are allowed to take them out of the building. When used for this type of inventory-control application, the system helps reduce theft by triggering an alarm if there is unauthorized movement of a person or object. If the RF tag is destroyed and stops sending a signal, the alarm also is triggered.
“George Orwell has predicted some day this was going to come,” said Gartner Group’s Egan regarding the sociological implications of the tracking technology.
“He might have been 15 years too late, but his prediction is coming true,” Egan said, referring to Orwell’s book, “1984,” which depicts a society that is constantly watched. “Of course, that’s what everyone said too when mobile phones first came to the mass-consumer market,” Egan continued.
New technologies redefine the meaning of the on/off button, said Egan. If you turn the power on your cellular phone off, it says it’s off, the lights are off, but according to the network, it’s still on.
“There are good aspects and there are bad aspects of technology,” said Viteri, commenting on the possibility of the intrusion of peoples’ privacy. “If people feel they are `being tracked,’ that’s an inappropriate use. But If they feel they are more safe, then that’s an appropriate use.” The ID tags also can simply be removed, he pointed out, and can’t locate a tag outside the system’s coverage, which is typically within the facility.
Floor coverage, which tracks the entries and exits, can be installed for about 10 cents per square foot. Zone tracking, which would have the capability to tell the user the tagged item is located in the northwest corner of the fourth floor, costs 20 cents to 40 cents per square foot installed. Full tracking costs 40 cents to 80 cents per square foot and can track a person or object 6 feet.
PinPoint initially plans to target its system at the health-care, warehouse-distribution and manufacturing industries. PinPoint also envisions applications in numerous other industries, such as security, government, retail and theme parks.
Already, PinPoint has begun installing a system for a major health-care customer, and has a backlog of orders from original equipment manufacturers and other customers, said Viteri. The company plans to announce its pilot installations soon.