10 of the Coolest Uses of Micro-location Technology

Wireless technology known as ultra-wideband offers much greater resolution than GPS and is already enabling a plethora of exciting applications.

Brian Buntz

May 27, 2016

10 Slides

GPS and service like Google Maps have transformed how people get around, but they have accuracy limits. GPS, for instance, is typically has a resolution measured from roughly 3 to 15 meters.

By contrast, the company DecaWave (Dublin, Ireland) has developed a low-power wireless transceiver that can detect indoor-tagged objects to within 10 cm. “DecaWave’s DW1000 doesn’t rely on signal strength measurements between objects like WiFi or Bluetooth. Instead, it is based on time-of-flight, which is much more accurate and reliable,” says Mickael Viot, DecaWave's Vice President of Marketing. The technology uses ultra-wideband (UWB) technology described in IEEE’s 802.14.4a standard.

The high resolution is helping to enable a plethora of applications. While the technology can be used to offer indoor navigation, the potential applications of ultrawideband are vast in scope, as illustrated in this feature.

1. Finding Things—whether in a Warehouse or at Home

Indoor positioning systems can be used similarly to GPS systems outside. For instance, a warehouse can be mapped helping guide automatic guided vehicles or human workers looking to find parts, tools, or pallets spread throughout the building. For instance, the Czech company GetVu has developed navigation technology for warehouses that guides workers to identify all of the goods needed to fulfill an order.

Earlier this year, Bosch demonstrated how ultra wideband technology could be used for track-and-trace applications with 10-cm accuracy at Bosch Connected World. The prior year, the resolution Bosch had for this function was in the range of 8–10 meters.

The company Pixie is working giving consumers similar technology for use in the home, giving them the ability to track the locations of tagged devices throughout and near the house. An iPad, for instance, could be tagged to make it easy to find the device when it was forgotten in the backseat of a car parked outside. 

2. Detecting Car Parts and Cars on Parking Lots

The potential automotive applications of micro-location technologies begin with streamlining manufacturing. Sometimes, a carmaker will build a car and everything finished but for one part, say, a seatbelt. “What they will do is store the cars outside in these massive parking lots outside and then, three days later, you will receive the seatbelt, but you need to find where the car is,” Viot says. Micro-location technology can make locating that car much easier.

This capability can also be used within automotive manufacturing facilities to locate tools, spare parts, and workers used to assemble the car.

Also, automotive companies can integrate the technology into cars to enable smart parking and other features. “You can also design cool functions if you have a key fob with a tag on it. Let’s say you are hunting for a car in a dark parking lot. The car can emit a beam of light shining towards you because it knows exactly where you are coming from,” Viot explains.

3. Tracking Professional and Amateur Athletes

The company ShotTracker, for instance, has integrated a chip embedded in the ball and has created wearables to track players in real time. “The system lets you track interceptions, successful passes, and shots,” Viot explains.

The attention that sabermetrics has gotten in the years after Moneyball was released have helped drive interest in tracking players in general. “Ultrawideband technology is getting a lot of traction in the sports industry—and not just in basketball,” he adds.

4. Context-Aware Remote Controls

What if you could take a single remote control and use it to control virtually everything electric in your house? You could use it to turn on connected lightbulbs. As you point it to your Sonos speaker, the interface adapts to let you control the music or the radio. If you point it at your TV, the functions morph to let you change the volume. That type of functionality is possible with remote controls designed to take advantage of micro-location technology.

5. Auto-Following Drones

Some high-end drones have a follow-me function, which can come in handy if you want to use the drones to shoot video of yourself. Until recently, most of these drones used facial recognition and form recognition technology with high-resolution cameras. The technology, however, often is associated with a high price tag. It is not always accurate either; when a lot of people around, the drone can get lost and lose track of you.

Microlocation technology can be used to replicate the functionality of technology at a lower price with greater accuracy. “A user has a small wearable, and it works like a virtual leash for the drone,” Viot says. “The drone and the wearable will communicate and exchange distance information constantly so you can build a virtual leash so the drone will just follow you wherever you go.”

The technology was featured in a recent Kickstarter campaign for a project from Skye Intelligence Technology.

6. Auto-Follow Video Cameras

Working on a similar principle as drones that follow a user, auto-follow video cameras can be used to follow automatically moving objects or people such as say, athletes, professional dancers, or a horse galloping around a track.

7. Preventing Accidents

Micro-location Technology has significant potential for preventing accidents. Cyclists or pedestrians equipped with an ultrawideband tag could communicate with connected cars that are as far as 200-m away to help avoid collisions. The same basic principle can prevent forklift accidents within manufacturing facilities. Employees with tags could communicate their position to connected forklifts. If workers get too close to the forklift, it will automatically stop.

8. Making Hospitals Safer and More Efficient

Waste and inefficiency continue to be significant problems for the healthcare industry. While it can be difficult to quantify the problem, a recent study summarized that medical errors were the third-leading cause of death in the United States. While that figure is uncertain, there is certainly a need for cutting down on mistakes and for improving efficiency as the healthcare industry worldwide becomes ever-more cost conscious. Micro-location technology can help clinicians keep track of assets, ensuring that the right products are used with patients. The technology can also be used to guide staff doctors and nurses as quickly as possible and can optimize patient flow.

9. Tracking Emergency Personnel and Soldiers

Although it’s not a new application, ultrawideband excels at tracking emergency personnel such as firefighters who can be difficult to monitor otherwise when entering buildings filled with flames and thick smoke. The same technology can be used to monitor the position of soldiers on missions and help guide them back to the base.

10. Retail Applications

Ultrawideband technology is also well suited for retail applications. “We also have a customer in Taiwan who is deploying a robot that is a shopping assistant,” Viot says. “When you got to the shop, it will launch a do-it-yourself shopping function. You can pick your robot, and it will guide you to the objects that are on your shopping list.”

Apart from shopping assistance, the technology could be helpful for retailers as it could help them study shoppers’ patterns when browsing in the store. “They can use this to optimize the floor layout,” Viot says.

About the Author(s)

Brian Buntz

Brian is a veteran journalist with more than ten years’ experience covering an array of technologies including the Internet of Things, 3-D printing, and cybersecurity. Before coming to Penton and later Informa, he served as the editor-in-chief of UBM’s Qmed where he overhauled the brand’s news coverage and helped to grow the site’s traffic volume dramatically. He had previously held managing editor roles on the company’s medical device technology publications including European Medical Device Technology (EMDT) and Medical Device & Diagnostics Industry (MD+DI), and had served as editor-in-chief of Medical Product Manufacturing News (MPMN).

At UBM, Brian also worked closely with the company’s events group on speaker selection and direction and played an important role in cementing famed futurist Ray Kurzweil as a keynote speaker at the 2016 Medical Design & Manufacturing West event in Anaheim. An article of his was also prominently on kurzweilai.net, a website dedicated to Kurzweil’s ideas.

Multilingual, Brian has an M.A. degree in German from the University of Oklahoma.

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