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
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
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
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
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
“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,
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
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