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Location + IoT: Tips and best practices for getting started

Location has fast become a must-have element for most connected solutions in order to wring as much value from the technology as possible. Adding location to your IoT product6 provides numerous — and sometimes surprising — advantages and capabilities. But creating a device that is able to find its own location or provide enough signal information to be located remotely is not necessarily a slam-dunk. With technology evolving constantly, there are details to consider before becoming connected — and the knowledge will help guide your path to success.

The era of the smartphone has changed expectations for users. We no longer worry about having proper directions to an unknown destination or being aware of our exact location, since this info simply lives in our mobile device. As a result, users are now conditioned to expect location information on our devices and we expect it to work anywhere — inside, underground, in cars, in urban “canyons,” in tunnels and so on.

We have also been led to believe that GPS is the only technology needed to get this done. It is true that GPS, or more broadly Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), is the go-to positioning technology and provides highly accurate positional capabilities, but rarely does it do everything by itself. GNSS is almost always enhanced and augmented by the addition of both cell and Wi-Fi positioning. Dig into any smartphone or device with location and you will find this triad of capabilities built in.

But as a developer building a new IoT-connected device, it’s important to explicitly consider how you are going to determine the best location technology for this device. What chips are needed, what service providers you should engage with, how location will affect your power profile and your bill of materials, and so forth. While this may sound daunting, it’s essential that IoT manufacturers ask the important questions at the start of planning their new product.

As any seasoned location service provider will tell you, many different device configurations and use cases exist, ranging from button-sized temperature sensors to pallet trackers to refrigerators. The challenge is that every possible use case and device configuration is encompassed within the broad category of IoT.

Before deciding what technologies are necessary, it is important to define what your location requirements include. These requirements will help inform the decision-making process and act as a blueprint for the developer. Below are some questions to discuss with your location provider as you are putting together the location strategy.

To define your requirements you should answer the following questions:

1. How frequently do you need location?
Will you need to know the location of the device every minute, every day, once an hour, only when it is moving or when some event occurs? Remember, each location determination may incur power costs, network costs and service costs.

2. Does the device itself need to know its location?
Will there be an interface on the device that allows location data to be accessed or is the location only useful to a centralized service? The answer to this may make certain technologies more appealing than others.

3. How much power can you afford to use when acquiring location?
Different positioning technologies have different power profiles. You need to be aware of this fact as it could impact your battery requirements or the frequency with which you can acquire location.

4. How accurate does the location need to be?
Not all use cases demand pinpoint precise location. In fact, some use cases require different levels of precision at different times. Do you need less than 10-meter accuracy or is 500-meter accuracy good enough? Understanding the required accuracy will help determine which technologies need to be incorporated into your IoT device.

5. What communication method is going to be used
Likely, you’ll want your device to have some communication capability. Some networks have location capabilities built in and some allow you to take advantage of third-party software. If one of these fits the bill, you may not need any other hardware chips for location.

Armed with answers to the questions above, you can then confidently discuss which options are most likely to meet these requirements with your location service provider.

To ensure you understand the various tradeoffs and the specific technologies being offered, consider posing the following questions to your potential location service provider(s):

1. What positioning technologies do you support/recommend?
At this point, your provider should understand your use case and your overall design goals as well as your specific location requirements. While they should be able to point you to the best offering, make sure you understand what exactly the proposed technology provides relative to your requirements.

2. What chipsets/sensors does my device require to provide this capability?
Try to ascertain if you’ll need to add any additional hardware into your device in order to meet the proposed technology. This could impact the overall power profile, the need for additional antennas, packaging and so forth for your final product.

3. What is the expected location accuracy of the proposed options?
You want to make sure that the actual accuracy for your use case is supported. Don’t be fooled by the “up to n meters accuracy” ploy. Ask for specifics for your given use case and environment. Ask for median and things like the 68th percentile error for your expected environment(s).

4. What hardware do we need to install on premises to support this level of accuracy?
This question is referring to adding additional hardware (for example, beacons) to your environment in order to meet the accuracy requirements. For example, if you operate in a warehouse but you need one meter accuracy, you may need to deploy additional Wi-Fi access points, beacons or other technologies to enable your desired level of accuracy.

5. How much does it cost?
It’s important to be aware of a number of potential hidden costs. Make sure to think about these different aspects of “cost:”

  • Additional bill-of-material costs
  • Additional beacon hardware costs (hardware, deployment, management, replacement)
  • Power costs
  • Network transport costs
  • Service costs
  • Software, hardware and network support costs

The value that location delivers cannot be overstated, and getting it right is paramount in order to derive the most benefit from it. With technology developments moving at lightning speed, the process for incorporating location should be swift and well-defined. Using these tips, developers are better armed to make more informed decisions, resulting in time-savings and an end result that represents all the amazing innovation available today.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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