Location Services Point to the Future

By Ville-Veikko Helppi

Product Manager for Cloud Services

Nordic Semiconductor ASA

January 20, 2022


Location Services Point to the Future

Cellular IoT and Cloud services are combining to help more industries manage their valuable resources no matter where they are on the globe.  

In November last year, dozens of container ships went missing off the US west coast. It had been a tough year in the maritime industry, but the vanishing of large numbers of entire ships seemed a remarkable new low. But this wasn’t a new Bermuda Triangle, rather the result of savvy statistical manipulation. With ports experiencing bottlenecks, it emerged vessels were simply hiding further out to sea to avoid being counted among the numbers of as-yet-unloaded ships.

It’s a tale that illustrates the pressures on the global shipping industry, as it contends with rising costs, increased demand, and pandemic-related disruptions. Faced with these challenges, it’s hardly surprising that shipping and logistics companies are looking for ways to optimize and improve their operations, to have the best chance of navigating choppy waters.

Improved asset tracking solutions offer hope. By providing a clearer and continuous view of the location of assets carried by containers and pallets, asset tracking enables logistics companies to manage their supply chains and respond to issues more efficiently. Such visibility could be immensely valuable considering companies lose $2.4 billion annually to damage or loss of cargo at sea and more than $30 billion to theft. At scale, asset tracking solutions could deliver $1.9 trillion of economic value to the global logistics sector alone.

The benefits of asset tracking extend beyond supply chains. Healthcare providers can track critical equipment such as ventilators and beds, while construction companies can track the use and movement of equipment on work sites, allowing them to optimize for future projects. There are even potential applications in the consumer sector, as reflected in the use of tracking devices for domestic pets.

Finding the Right Track

GPS is a widely recognized way to obtain accurate and real-time location information, but its use also involves trade-offs. While very accurate, a GPS tracker needs to be situated outdoors so it has a direct line-of-sight to satellites, and consumes a lot of energy from the tracker’s battery. This makes it unsuitable for IoT devices that must operate from batteries over extended time periods in a variety of locations.

Networks supporting cellular IoT standards such as LTE-M and NB-IoT—specifically developed for lower data and lower power requirements—are rolling out across the globe and are making longer-lasting battery-powered asset trackers a reality. Cellular IoT trackers also work indoors and deliver benefits beyond just location tracking – for instance, they can host sensors that monitor the temperature and condition of fragile or perishable goods.

As companies adopt more trackable cellular IoT devices, the need will arise to manage large fleets of devices and aggregate and interpret their data. Commercial IoT Cloud management solutions exist, but can be clunky and challenging for the inexperienced.

Nordic Semiconductor’s nRF Cloud Location Services addresses these needs by supporting the simplified configuration, management, and maintenance of fleets of cellular IoT devices. The product also offers customers a number of location services, allowing them to choose the one that best manages the trade-offs between accuracy and power consumption for their needs. For example, single-cell and multi-cell location features save power by not using GPS to pinpoint the asset’s whereabouts. The trade-off is a maximum precision of several hundred meters. Greater accuracy comes from nRF Cloud Location Services’ Assisted- and Predicted-GPS, which although requiring more power than the cellular techniques is more battery-friendly than GPS alone.

A Solution for the Future

The emergence of cellular IoT solutions promises a bright future for the asset-tracking sector. For instance, as cyber threats intensify, the high level of security built into asset tracking solutions will become ever more important. Cellular IoT tracking solutions build off the established safeguards inherent to cellular networks, while cellular IoT devices can themselves provide additional layers of security. For example, Nordic’s nRF9160 SiP, a popular cellular IoT solution used in many asset-tracking solutions, uses Arm TrustZone’s hardware-enforced isolation of critical components. nRF Cloud Location Services add further layers of security via authentication encryption for data that moves between devices and the Cloud, and firmware updates over-the-air to ensure devices remain up to date.

The convergence of cellular IoT with technologies such as the Cloud is also paving the way for new ideas. For example, access to Cloud storage means solution aren’t limited to the limited storage available on the IoT device itself. This opens the door for the storage and usage of historical information such as where an asset was and its condition, which could enable new use cases in insurance, investigations, and even support entirely new business models such as equipment leasing arrangements based on accurate usage data.

More broadly, by relieving them of the burden of managing and integrating their tracker devices, Cloud location services will also spur more innovative applications by enabling companies to focus their time and efforts on developing new ideas and differentiated solutions.