IoT Location Data Just Got Easier for Industries

For many industrial operations it’s vital to know where things are. A good example comes from the food chain, where goods grown in one country and shipped to another for sale can go through 10 to 15 logistical stages — such as being loaded onto a different form of transportation, checked through customs, divided up by a local distributor or being added to a store’s inventory at the destination.

In many places these steps are checked manually using paper manifests, a clipboard and a pen. Or they’re done with barcode scanners attached to a local system that doesn’t make data available to anyone else.

This approach makes it hard to track the goods’ progress, both for the supplier and the customer. It also makes the process more prone to errors, with goods often stuck at a particular stage and nobody knowing about it. This is one major reason why wastage in the food chain is so high. It’s estimated that about 25% of all produced food is lost or ruined before it’s sold to consumers.

As part of the digital transformation of logistics and retail, as well as inventory handling in most other sectors, the Internet of things (IoT) can offer many benefits — especially if tracking devices can report their location. The efficiency gains available are potentially huge. Given that all smartphones now have good mapping services, this sounds simple, but in practice it’s more difficult to implement in industry.

Reasons for this include that location information is needed while goods are on the ocean, while they’re in metal containers, while in a truck travelling through different cellular coverage zones or from country to country and, crucially, while they’re indoors in crowded depots and warehouses.

So the technology used needs to cope with indoor and outdoor locations for a variety of environments, even when the devices are offline. No single technology can do that, so suppliers need systems that bring together different methods of location tracking in a single unifying system. This push to offer seamless location data for multiple indoor and outdoor environments is one of the big trends in IoT.

And beyond knowing the location of their goods, customers in many sectors need to know what condition the goods are in. So a system needs to have sensors monitoring temperature, pressure, humidity, vibration, shock and other risk factors. Ideally these all need to be reported in as close to real time as possible, regardless of where the shipment is.

Other trends in this area include: the arrival of new technology options such as 5G and ultra-wideband networks; the growth of uses that only function using location data such as drones, self-driving cars, automatic emergency location, electric scooters and Internet-based taxi firms; and system economics that are improving as volume rises so that it’s now viable to track smaller and lower-value items.

As these trends are happening we’re also seeing user expectations rise. Location data is increasingly built into industrial operations, and companies are coming to depend on it. So they expect systems to present standardized data, to have full industrial reliability options, to offer non-stop working, to be easy to scale up to millions of devices and to offer ready access for developers so that they can be integrated with other systems. These all tend to push costs up.

There are some efforts to provide or develop these features for both indoor and outdoor positioning, either provided by individual suppliers or as standardization initiatives. But one major new addition to the landscape comes from Qualcomm’s announcement of Qualcomm Aware just before MWC 2023. I recently caught up with Dr Jeff Torrance, senior vice president and general manager of the connected smart systems business at Qualcomm, to discuss this new platform.

Qualcomm’s already a leader in device location, thanks to its very strong position in cellular chipsets for phones and cars. Typically these focus on satellite positioning, such as GPS, and cell-site triangulation.

With Qualcomm Aware the company will offer a full stack of hardware, tools and services to enable IoT suppliers to use location data, consisting of:

  • Chipsets: these are the core of the communication modules used in IoT devices for tracking.
  • Cloud services: for managing devices and performing heavier location calculations outside the device, which highly improves the latter’s battery life.
  • Positioning algorithms and techniques: in 2022 Qualcomm acquired acquired Skyhook and the assets of Polte, gaining a comprehensive global database of millions of cellular towers and billions of Wi-Fi access points, as well as a large number of specialist positioning techniques.
  • Webhooks and APIs: these make services accessible to developers on several layers of the stack.
  • Developer tools: for simplifying developer use and integration of the location information they’re getting, and for customizing their solutions to specific sectors or uses.
  • System blueprints: these are fully architected system designs addressing specific uses, such as asset tracking, developed with Qualcomm’s partners. They provide pre-integrated elements, are designed for large-scale use and offer strong security as well as APIs and pre-tested code.
  • Partner ecosystem: this is a large network of hardware partners, which develop modules and systems using Qualcomm’s chipsets and tools, and which then sell them to customers.

One vital aspect of launching Qualcomm Aware is that this stack is fully integrated and optimized as a single platform. So the various components are designed to work together seamlessly, eliminating the technical fragmentation a customer would face if they tried to build a system for themselves. It also includes dashboards, other analytics tools and cloud APIs so that location data is easy to transfer to enterprise resource planning or other corporate systems.

Qualcomm has high ambitions for its new platform and the impact it can have on a broad range of sectors, highlighting the scale of current inventory handling issues with an infographic. At launch, the company’s initial focus will be on cold chain distribution for the food industry, cargo shipments, warehousing and utility poles.

The latter is a lesser-known but very beneficial use when poles holding telephone and electricity cables are damaged by storms; with an IoT module attached to them they can report that they’re tilting or have fallen over and report their location. This saves a lot of time for maintenance engineers and reduces carbon dioxide emissions from having to drive to search for damages.

Dr Torrance emphasized that the launch of Qualcomm Aware is just the start of a significant new play in IoT for the company. The number of APIs, tools, blueprints and partners is set to expand as the company builds scale with the platform. But more than that, Qualcomm will be using the system for enhancing its own efforts in mobile phones and automotive — so it’ll also be a major client of the system.

Dr Torrance also mentioned that a guiding ambition for Qualcomm Aware is to accelerate the IoT industry’s use of comprehensive location data by making it much simpler and more available. This should help move the IoT industry toward the common vision of having location data thought of as a utility available in a similar way to electricity.

In CCS Insight’s view, this is a strong and timely move by Qualcomm into a part of the market that’s currently fragmented and tough for users to navigate. It’s also a good start on building a long-term position in the segment. Qualcomm’s main advantages will be its strength in power-efficient location, the fact that it’s also using the system internally — so customers can feel confident that it will be available for a long time — and its substantial network of partners.

To maximize Qualcomm’s chances of success, the company will need to develop the system to into a true platform, so that others are able to contribute connectors to alternative positioning systems such as Bluetooth. It should also encourage other suppliers to integrate Qualcomm Aware with 5G private networks, as well as a myriad of other IoT platforms and enterprise systems.