By Raghu Das, CEO, IDTechEx

By many parameters, there is substantially more work being done on RTLS than before. For example, the number of companies offering solutions in RTLS has trebled in the last three years. Increasingly applications for active RFID want RTLS capability, particularly in healthcare, manufacturing and other asset management applications. Ultra Wide Band (UWB) developer Time Domain, who did a flawless live demo of real time tracking at the event, report that 2008 is a turning point for UWB – they see a very strong demand and full pipeline for 2009. IDTechEx expect the RTLS market in 2008 to be $140 Million. The conventional active RFID market (no RTLS) is still much larger at $490 Million this year but the majority of this is for car clickers and their systems – a mature market.

Tom Bradshaw of Wayne Memorial Hospitals in the US spoke of the many paybacks of the RTLS system they are using. One payback alone is the reduction of new IV pumps purchased because the hospital could track and more efficiently utilize existing pumps. That alone pays for the whole system. Applying the system to wheelchairs and other assets results in many direct and rapid cost savings that Bradshaw covered in detail. The system can pay for itself many times over within a year. Other end users at the event covered similar success stories, and these give new adopters confidence and clarification of which scenarios active RFID/RTLS can provide strong returns. Still, few success stories are widely published and many are confidential. Working with industry, IDTechEx will aid promotion of success stories through its RFID Knowledgebase of case studies

Many different systems are being used. Indeed, some are not even RFID, such as ultrasound, infra red or combinations. For some protocols and applications there are already standards, such as the ISO18000 standard used by the military and the ZigBee protocol for wireless networks. However, many developers felt that while eventually standards are important for the biggest open systems, they are wary of the long timescales involved and are choosing to prioritize the large immediate opportunity of closed loop systems. Indeed, while the cost of active RFID is reducing, it is not the intent to force prices down to the extent that the costs do not become sustainable for the companies involved – as happened in passive UHF RFID tag supply. In the intended applications, there are sound business cases at existing price points.

A key issue of active RFID tags has always been their lifetime – due to the battery in the tag. A tag lasting two years versus five years has a significant effect on the return on investment of the system. Battery development has been behind the tag and system development, although new forms of batteries are now available from companies such as Enfucell and Cymbet to tackle that. In addition, presentations covered energy harvesting where motion, light, heat, RF and other energy forms can be used to recharge batteries. Several active RFID companies are integrating these into tags already. IDTechEx will release a report on this topic in 2009 and an event, covering the huge work going on in this area.

Third generation active RFID. First generation active RFID was a tag communicating to a reader for ID and other information. Second generation involves multiple readers to enable RTLS. Now third generation is the development of adhoc networks – the tags become readers – which usually involves sensors for large area wireless sensor networks. This is called Wireless Sensor Networks (WSN). It also involves other protocols – many developers are using the ZigBee and other emerging standards for low power, wide area sensor networking. Applications are just emerging but already include monitoring car park spaces and monitoring the temperature of cargo in transit.

If you missed the event, you can purchase the electronic proceedings and audio from Next year IDTechEx will be covering this topic in its annual European event – RFID Europe - in addition to repeating the show in the US. The US event will be called “RTLS and Wireless Sensor Networks