“Where’s My Stuff?” – Listen to Your Bluetooth® Tags

If you’re in the construction, equipment rental, oil & gas, or municipal/environmental business (to name a few) your “stuff” is valuable because it costs a lot, but even more so because it’s what you use to make money. Knowing precisely where your equipment and tools are can make the difference between meeting a schedule or incurring costly delays.

A common technology to track valuable “stuff” is the Bluetooth “tag”, one of the most flexible, available, and cost-effective means of asset management. They are rugged, weatherproof, long-life battery powered devices that can be installed on most anything including tools, ladders, light equipment, bins and dumpsters, and iron attachments. So, what is a “Bluetooth tag?”

I’ve got Bluetooth speakers and a Bluetooth headset, are they “tags”?
Nope. Bluetooth is a wireless technology that is perfect for nearby, device-to-device communication. “Tag” refers to applications where the data quantity is small to modest, not a stream like music or a phone call, and uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) named after its low power features with a range of about two hundred feet. Popular consumer BLE tags include Apple’s AirTag and devices from Tile used to find personal items like wallets and keys. Industrial applications use tags built for tough use and low maintenance.

The nature of the BLE tag data communication is different than continuously connected IoT or consumer device applications. The tag periodically transmits, “I’m here”, and it’s the system’s job to simply listen. The listening element is called a “gateway”. Simply put, the tag tells the gateway, “I’m here,” much like when your kid returns from a date and shouts, “Mom, Dad, I’m home.”

So it is the gateway that listens for nearby tags. A gateway with its own GPS location will connect to the internet over a cellular radio or local network and report on those tags that are in range. The gateway itself can be a mobile phone, tablet, vehicle tracking device, or “box” installed on a building.

Why would I want a Bluetooth tag vs. a GPS tracker?
It’s a matter of affordability. If you have valuable assets where real-time communication from anywhere is needed, then an asset tracker with GPS and cellular communication is your best bet, but at a cost of about 3 times more for the device and service. But if your “stuff” isn’t as valuable and you just need to know where you left it last, then Bluetooth tags might be right for you.

BLE “I’m here” isn’t like GPS.

“Here” simply means “within ‘earshot’ of the gateway” whose location is known.

Here’s how an asset tracking system
using BLE works:

    1. Equip all the assets you want to track with a BLE tag compatible with your selected gateway(s) and record which tag goes with which asset. Note: Some assets have integrated BLE tag capabilities, like many tools from Milwaukee and DeWalt.
    2. Identify the vehicles, warehouses, yards, or sites of interest and deploy gateways.
    3. Select and integrate an asset tracking system to host the asset database, identify assets whose BLE tag is reporting to the site gateway(s), and display results. Coverage in large areas can be accomplished with multiple gateways or on vehicles that move about that area.

The BLE system answers some questions and not others:

    • Is my asset here?
      Yes, and “here” is the location of the gateway. If you’ve an array of gateways it might also know, “In zone 3C of the yard” or “At Site 203”.
    • What happens when my assets move?
      If the tag is in range of just one gateway, you’ll only be notified when the unit is out of range. If you have multiple gateways a tag’s movement will show as it moves between neighboring gateways.
    • What happens when my assets leave the yard?
      The system reports your asset as “gone” when it stops reporting. If it is being transported by a vehicle with its own GPS tracking and BLE gateway capability, you’ll know “asset A is with truck B”. Otherwise, the asset’s location is known only when it shows up in another monitored area.
    • Can many gateways receive the same “I’m Here” signal?
      Yes, if a tag is nearby any number of gateways within range can hear it.
    • If the tag doesn’t have GPS, how does the system know its location?
      The gateways’ locations are known whether they are fixed or part of a device with GPS tracking, so by default the tag’s location is known when in range of the gateway.
    • How can you make a phone your gateway?
      Because BLE tags can be detected by most mobile phones, a standard smartphone can be used to both deploy tags and identify tagged assets using a tag application on the phone.
    • What environments work best with tags?
      Like any radio signal, BLE tag range is impacted by the environment. It works best outdoors or spacious indoor environments with no building interference. If you keep your assets enclosed in a metal truck or locker it may not be detectable.
    • If I already have tags on tools, will they work with tags I purchase separately?
      Yes and no. Some gateways and tags are designed to work together so check first about interoperability.

In Summary, BLE asset tags can help identify the presence and help locate most any asset. They are simple to install, offer a long life (typically more than 3 years), and provide a common or standard wireless interface that communicates to a gateway or smartphone. They’re not an option for on-the-road vehicle tracking, but a powerful complement to identify where all your “stuff” is.