Real-time locating systems (RTLS)

Real-time locating systems (RTLS) are used to automatically identify and track the location of objects or people in real time, usually within a building or other contained area. Wireless RTLS tags are attached to objects or worn by people, and in most RTLS, fixed reference points receive wireless signals from tags to determine their location. Examples of real-time locating systems include tracking automobiles through an assembly line, locating pallets of merchandise in a warehouse, or finding medical equipment in a hospital.

Locating concepts

RTLS are generally used in indoor and/or confined areas, such as buildings, and do not provide global coverage like GPS. RTLS tags are affixed to mobile items to be tracked or managed. RTLS reference points, which can be either transmitters or receivers, are spaced throughout a building (or similar area of interest) to provide the desired tag coverage. In most cases, the more RTLS reference points that are installed, the better the location accuracy, until the technology limitations are reached.

A number of disparate system designs are all referred to as "real-time locating systems", but there are two primary system design elements:

Locating at choke points

The simplest form of choke point locating is where short range ID signals from a moving tag are received by a single fixed reader in a sensory network, thus indicating the location coincidence of reader and tag. Alternately, a choke point identifier can be received by the moving tag, and then relayed, usually via a second wireless channel, to a location processor. Accuracy is usually defined by the sphere spanned with the reach of the choke point transmitter or receiver. The use of directional antennas, or technologies such as infrared or ultrasound that are blocked by room partitions, can support choke points of various geometries.

Locating in relative coordinates

ID signals from a tag is received by a multiplicity of readers in a sensory network, and a position is estimated using one or more locating algorithms, such as trilateration, multilateration, or triangulation. Equivalently, ID signals from several RTLS reference points can be received by a tag, and relayed back to a location processor. Localization with multiple reference points requires that distances between reference points in the sensory network be known in order to precisely locate a tag, and the determination of distances is called ranging.

Another way to calculate relative location is if mobile tags communicate directly with each other, then relay this information to a location processor.

Location accuracy

RF trilateration uses estimated ranges from multiple receivers to estimate the location of a tag. RF triangulation uses the angles at which the RF signals arrive at multiple receivers to estimate the location of a tag. Many obstructions, such as walls or furniture, can distort the estimated range and angle readings leading to varied qualities of location estimate. Estimation-based locating is often measured in accuracy for a given distance, such as 90% accurate for 10 meter range.

Systems that use locating technologies that do not go through walls, such as infrared or ultrasound, tend to be more accurate in an indoor environment because only tags and receivers that have line of sight (or near line of sight) can communicate.