IoT Blog
IoT Blog

IoT Tracking of Mobile Assets: A New Opportunity for Product Manufacturers

by Robin Duke-Woolley, Founder and CEO, Beecham Research Ltd
Anyone following the evolution of IoT recognizes that mobile asset tracking, for assets such as vehicles, containers, pallets and more, is one of the most common and successful use cases to date. Yet according to our research, the number of mobile assets currently being tracked is just a small fraction of the total number that could be. At the end of 2017, the number of mobile assets of all kinds being tracked worldwide was approximately 50 million units. Yet there are currently around one billion vehicles worldwide and about 10 billion pallets, not to mention the potential for new applications for tracking people, livestock, pets, luggage and other valuable assets. 

A key reason we are not doing more IoT asset tracking today is a question of need versus cost. While being able to track luggage, pallets, shipping containers or other assets might be useful, it may not always be economically viable, when one considers the value delivered from an IoT asset tracking solution versus the cost of setting up and maintaining the solution. However, new technologies, including many from Sierra Wireless, are transforming the mobile asset tracking market, making IoT tracking solutions both more valuable to users and less expensive.

For example, Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) wireless technologies, specifically, the NB-IoT and LTE-M standards, offer very low power consumption and extended coverage for low-bandwidth applications. Devices incorporating these technologies will make it easier to create lower cost services for tracking a much wider range of mobile assets than ever before. In addition, the Embedded Universal Integrated Circuit Card (eUICC) standard enables the deployment of embedded SIMS (eSIMs), a SIM technology that allows OEMs, IoT solution providers and customers to select and change their wireless network cellular subscriptions, making it easier and less costly to track large numbers of assets wherever they move around the world. Together, these two enabling technologies will change the market landscape for IoT.

How Low Power Wide Area Technologies Improve IoT asset tracking 

Existing wireless connectivity technologies tend to support short-range transmissions at lower cost or long-range transmissions at higher cost. By contrast, low-cost LPWA technologies are specifically designed for low-bandwidth/long-distance transmissions and low power consumption, and they are intended to support the many IoT applications that require large numbers of devices to transmit only small amounts of data, such as sensors on a fleet of trucks or pallet shipments sending GPS coordinates. Since these assets are often nowhere near a power source, the IoT devices must also be able to operate on battery power over long periods, another benefit delivered by LPWA. 

Thanks to these performance and cost benefits, we expect LPWA to drive a mass deployment of connected devices. In 2015, 95 percent of connections used traditional cellular (2G, 3G, 4G), with just three percent using LPWA. By the end of 2017, LPWA usage had grown to eight percent and is expected to reach 33 percent of connections in 2020. With the overall growth of IoT connections continuing to skyrocket, this means that LPWA growth is expected to be exponential over the next few years.

LPWA will be particularly attractive to Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) working to integrate IoT connectivity into their products. Because NB-IoT and LTE-M technologies use existing cellular networks, they will rapidly become available in many countries where 4G networks have been deployed. This will enable OEMs to sell solutions to customers wherever demand for them appear around the world. LPWA transmissions are also highly secure and provide guaranteed quality of service, which is essential for OEMs offering customers IoT solution Service Level Agreements (SLAs). These technologies are also future-proofed for 5G, providing OEMs and their customers with confidence in the longevity of the solutions, along with ensuring support from a widely established ecosystem with many suppliers.

eUICC Standard Enables eSIMs, Which Provide More Mobile Asset Tracking Wireless Choices

While traditional SIM cards have worked well for the mobile handset market, they are problematic for devices not purchased through a mobile phone retail outlet. For IoT applications, having to match a traditional SIM card (and thus a mobile operator) with a device at the time of manufacture introduces costly logistical issues. Which SIM card should be used for which regions? How many should be ordered? Further, changing the mobile operator during the life of an application means changing the SIM on every device, which can require many expensive site visits – and even then, depending on the asset, (for example, a truck or shipping container) there can be significant access challenges. 

eUICC (Embedded Universal Integrated Circuit Card) is a SIM technology standard that is being increasingly adopted for embedded SIMS (eSIMs), which address the above and other IoT application challenges. eSIMs can be provisioned over the air, making it possible to remotely assign or change the network operator subscription attached to it. This allows an eSIM to be inserted into a device’s circuit board during manufacture like any other component. The eSIM can then be provisioned when the appropriate network operator profile has been determined. Wherever the solution ends up, when the eSIM is switched on, a bootstrap profile sets up a wireless connection so the correct network profile for that location can be downloaded over the air. No physical intervention is required at that time or if the mobile operator subsequently needs to be changed.

This dramatically streamlines the production process and reduces costs by eliminating the need to install a pre-ordered, proprietary SIM card into each device before shipping. This is very important for the OEM market where products may be shipped anywhere in the world. eSIMs are also available in a card form factor, which can be inserted into existing devices instead of a normal SIM card to provide remote provisioning for such devices. This operator-neutral eSIM also means the SIM can be owned by the OEM, IoT service provider or customer instead of the mobile operator, again simplifying the supply chain.

eSIMs introduce new opportunities for OEMs to use cellular connectivity in their products. For example, auto manufacturers are already using it for a variety of telematics and in-car entertainment uses. And it is relevant for most LPWA use cases, which rely on cellular connections for their connectivity and may benefit from global and regional operator neutrality.

New Mobile Asset Tracking Opportunities

The combination of eSIM and cellular LPWA technologies enable OEMs to use wide area, wireless connectivity to deploy small-form-factor products that require very low battery usage over many years. OEMs will also appreciate the proven reliability and resilience offered by cellular networks at low cost. With these capabilities in mind, broad new categories of affordable IoT asset tracking services become possible:
  • In-building tracking of people, assets, elevators and escalators in the Buildings sector. 
  • Monitoring of field staff in hazardous environments in the Energy sector. 
  • Personal health monitoring and the tracking of staff and frequently moved assets such as defibrillators in the Healthcare sector. 
  • Tracking of pets to luggage to bicycles and more in the Consumer/Home sector. 
  • Tracking livestock, as well as many aspects of warehouse management, such as tracking mobile assets like forklifts, in the Industrial sector.
In addition, other sectors – Retail, Transportation, Security/Public Safety, IT & Networks – all have their own IoT asset tracking use cases.

Mobile asset tracking is already one of the most important IoT use cases, but its adoption for many types of applications has been slowed by an unfavorable need-to-cost equation. However, today two new technologies are empowering OEMs to build and roll out lower cost services that can be used for a much broader range of applications. 

Low Power Wide Area technologies, including NB-IoT and LTE-M, provide very low power consumption and extended coverage for low-bandwidth applications, making it cost-effective to create applications that track high numbers of assets anywhere in the world – with tracking devices that can operate for years in the field without the need to replace batteries. eUICC enables the deployment of eSIMs that can be provisioned over the air, making it possible to remotely assign or change the network operator’s subscription attached to the eSIM. This completely changes the SIM supply chain, enabling OEMs to install the same eSIM in every device during manufacturing just like any other component, and then assign a mobile operator during the appropriate time when the service is rolled out. 

With innovative companies like Sierra Wireless supporting these new technologies, we expect a significant acceleration and broadening of IoT asset tracking services over the coming years.

To learn more about mobile asset tracking, watch this on-demand expert panel, download the white paper, How IoT Enables Mobile Asset Tracking Throughout the Supply Chain, and Start with Sierra to build a strong IoT asset tracking development and rollout strategy.