Making Location Awareness Useful

Inco Ltd., the world’s largest nickel company, may seem an unlikely candidate to be a wireless trendsetter, but the giant Canadian mining operation is at the forefront of a couple of important trends in Wi-Fi.


Inco deployed Cisco Aironet WLAN gear in its mines in Sudbury, Canada, not just to provide local area network connectivity, but as infrastructure that it could leverage to run non-traditional applications.  One of the first of these was voice over Wi-Fi. Like some other mining companies, Inco is now replacing 40-year-old underground communications systems with VoWi-Fi.


The company also recently deployed a wireless asset tracking system from Wi-Fi positioning pioneer AeroScout. The tracking system rides on the existing Cisco infrastructure. The only network upgrades required were firmware updates for the access points. The Inco implementation is an example of the kind of sophisticated locationing applications that AeroScout and other vendors in this suddenly booming field are now promoting. They go well beyond merely finding missing assets.


Inco will certainly use the technology to locate misplaced trucks, carts, containers, dies, drills and other tools. This is the traditional RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) application. Electronic tags are attached to the assets to be tracked. The AeroScout Tag, the first Wi-Fi tag introduced over 18 months ago, has a unit price of $65, but sells for less when purchased in volume.


The tag transmits a signal which is picked up by multiple access points within its range. The system triangulates the tag’s position by measuring either the time it takes the signal to arrive at each access point, or by measuring and comparing the strengths of the signals when they arrive. AeroScout claims its tag is the only one on the market that supports both locationing methods and can be used in both indoor and outdoor deployments.


You might wonder how big objects like mining equipment could go missing, but as AeroScout marketing manager Joshua Slobin notes, “Companies lose sight of items much, much larger than these.” The Inco Sudbury site is also vast, with multiple mines spread over thousands of acres, with miles of tunnels and shafts.


Operators at a central monitoring center locate an asset – the system visually plots it on a map on a computer screen – and then use the VoWi-Fi telephone system to tell workers at the mine sites where to find the item. Other customers have implemented the technology so that mobile workers in the field can locate assets using Wi-Fi-enabled PDAs, Slobin notes.


Inco’s main strategic objective in deploying the AeroScout technology was to find ways to speed production of ore by reducing inefficiencies. Not having the right drill at the right place at the right time, for example, slows production. Finding it quickly can help. It’s more than just finding stuff faster, though.


Inco also wants to be able to analyze where assets spend their time and see how and how quickly they move from one place to another. If it can find out where the bottlenecks are in its production processes, it may be able to redesign processes to eliminate the delays. It also helps to know – based on how often and where assets move – how well, or not, they’re being utilized. The company may be able to save money by reducing inventory on an item, or improve efficiency by increasing inventory.


AeroScout’s MobileView software platform, a relatively new addition to its portfolio, enables this and many other advanced location-aware applications. It lets users do simple searches, find the condition or status of assets, visualize their locations on a map, draw zones on the map, search within zones, output reports, and define events, such as a vehicle entering an area.


“MobileView is what delivers the return on investment,” says AeroScout vice president of marketing Gabi Daniely. “It defines the business logic and all the processes that will eventually help the company save labor and time.”


“It’s changing our business and the industry from one very focused on simply determining location to taking that location data and turning it into something really usable,” adds Slobin.


Inco will eventually implement more sophisticated functions, including using AeroScout Exciters to enable “chokepoint” applications. When a Tag comes close to an Exciter – or vice versa – the Exciter, a specialized radio transmitter, forces the Tag to transmit a signal to the network, which is identified as a signal sent at the behest of that particular Exciter.


Inco will place Exciters at entrances to prohibited areas, and use the technology to trigger alerts if a vehicle or tool enters an area where it doesn’t belong. It can send alerts triggered by such events as e-mail, text or voice messages, or a change to a Web page. Inco also plans to use Exciters to track and analyze workflows, measuring the time taken for an asset to move from one location or stage in a process to another.


Manufacturing companies are using the “chokepoint” technology in similar ways to control workflows in highly automated plants where the manufactured item needs to proceed in order from one stage in the process, and location in the facility, to the next. The Exciter can send a small amount of data to the Tag, which it stores in memory. It basically says, ‘I passed this Exciter’ – meaning, ‘I’ve been through this step in the process.’ If the tagged item tries to move through the process in the wrong order – if it goes from step two to step four, bypassing step three, for example – the system will trigger an alert.


These are just some of the advanced applications RFID companies like AeroScout are developing. Relatively inexpensive presence detection systems can automate taking inventory. Car rental companies, for example, have to periodically send someone out to their parking lots to figure out which vehicles are actually in the lot. Having tags attached to each car continually sending signals to the system completely eliminates this task.


In other situations, an Exciter attached to a notebook computer can send a signal to a particular tag telling it to blink its light continuously so the mobile worker carrying the computer can find the item in a crowded warehouse.


This new breed of Wi-Fi positioning applications is driving a market boom, Slobin and Daniely say. AeroScout currently has 70 to 80 customers. Many of the deployments are trials or pilots, but “several,” like the Inco system, are production applications. Growth going forward will be “exponential,” Daniely says. “We expect to more than double [the number of customers] in 2006.”


An April 2005 report from market researcher VDC (Venture Development Corporation) says global shipments of RFID systems (hardware, software and services) reached nearly $1.8 billion in 2004. The firm expects the RFID market to reach $5.9 billion by 2008.


AeroScout competes both against other Wi-Fi-based system vendors, and against much more established companies that sell proprietary “active” RFID systems. It claims to be at or near the top of the Wi-Fi segment in terms of market share. The AeroScout Tag is definitely the biggest-selling Wi-Fi tag, Daniely says. Other vendors with tags include Ekahau and PanGo Networks.


As Wi-Fi networks become ubiquitous – including in unlikely places like mines – Wi-Fi-based RFID makes increasing sense as a way to leverage the initial network investment. The AeroScout technology works well with both Cisco Aironet and Airspace gear. The company also sells its own access points or Location Receivers.

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