On your bike, GPS! Is Sigfox a better low-power location service? (Case...

On your bike, GPS! Is Sigfox a better low-power location service? (Case studies)

Four decades on and still going strong, but is GPS the right positioning system for the IoT? Nik Rawlinson looks at how a range of innovative businesses use location technologies.

GPS turns 40 this year and rarely gets the credit it deserves. Forward-thinking at its inception, it still underpins everything from smartwatch apps to spaceflight – so seamlessly that we barely notice.

But all that could be set to change.

As the IoT goes mainstream, our reliance on positioning data for applications such as asset-tracking and billing will rise – but not on the back of GPS, with its fearsome power requirements. Lower-power chips can reduce consumption, but they can’t accelerate the data, which streams at 50bps.

This isn’t some hangover from the 1970s spec, but a design choice that increases the likelihood of transmitting something usable to the receiver. But at that rate, getting a fix on three moving satellites (the minimum required for triangulation, of course) can take seconds. That may not be a problem where there are constant, predictable currents, but IoT devices may need to run for years on a single charge.

This challenge drive the uptake of low-power, non-GPS alternatives.

The low power challenge

Sigfox, which triangulates by sniffing SSIDs, can send up to 140 packets of data through the uplink daily. It can give accurate – if not quite real-time – location updates, rivalling the accuracy of GPS and obviating the need for integrated 3G.

“The beauty of Sigfox is that it just needs a few micro-watts of power to get a message out of the SSID,” says Neal Forse, CEO of WND UK, which is building a UK-wide Sigfox network for the Internet of Things. “Until now, if you wanted to track an asset for its lifetime, such as a cage in a transport hub, you’d have to use RFID. But as soon as it left the hub you’d have no idea where it was.”

Swapping RFID for GPS is impractical, because it would require warehouse managers to renew a tracker’s batteries every few days. But, says Forse, “if you put one of our trackers on it, you can embed it within the fabric of the asset, and it will last for the lifetime of the cage itself.”

The power requirements are so low that Sigfox has even developed a smart paper envelope, which can notify the sender where and when the recipient opened it. The cost of materials for the envelope is just 20 cents, significantly undercutting traditional tracked mail services.

However, Sigfox isn’t a magic bullet. For example, it wouldn’t work for ad-hoc car rental services or for Uber-style ride-hailing. These continue to use GPS, as do rivals to the UK’s official bike-hire schemes, which are rolling out across the country.

On your bike

London’s government sanctioned public bikes are being challenged by some smart, connected competitors. One is oBike, while another, ofo, is launching similar services in Sheffield, Norwich, and Oxford. By tracking their bikes using GPS, these smart providers are more agile and asset-light than other bike-hire services. They reduce both start-up and ongoing costs by doing away with the need for street-side infrastructure, such as bike docks.

“Having bikes free from docking stations brings us a lot of advantages,” says Joseph Seal-Driver, ofo’s general manager for the UK and Ireland. “Our set-up costs are lower, we can deploy faster, our users are more likely to find a bike nearby, and they can park it anywhere responsibly at the end of their journey.”

ofo’s 10 million bikes worldwide are fitted with Bluetooth and 3G to constantly stream their location, and this enables users to unlock them via an app. The company began shipping thousands of smart bikes to the US and UK in 2016.

“The app also gives us the flexibility to create virtual hubs in key locations – such as outside tube stations, where users can park and reliably find bikes,” says Seal-Driver. “We have the power in our software to incentivise customers to leave bikes in these hubs, such as credits for a free ride.”

ofo charges by the half hour, with a daily cap, but the technology could work just as well in reverse.

Blockchain-based payroll start-up Etch, which is targeting the construction industry at first, is using location services to save employees from clocking in and out of their shifts. Payments are processed immediately, rather than once a month, with every minute that an employee is onsite credited to their account in real time.

No easy ride

One thing is clear. Smart services such as oBike, ofo, and Etch are winning support because there’s a clear end-user gain. And in ofo’s case, community gains, too: since rolling out in Shanghai three years ago, car use for journeys of less than three miles has decreased by 44 percent.

However, research from the UK’s ICO, published in late 2017, revealed that only one in five of the UK public trusts organisations that store their personal data – and twice as many actively distrust them. This suggests that where the end-user benefit is less obvious or incentivised, providers will have to work hard to gain acceptance.

This is the hidden challenge in rolling out smart services to the public. Research and strategy consultancy, Populus, came to similar conclusions. In a report on the insurance sector, it found that almost half of all drivers dislike the idea of black boxes or apps tracking their performance, and believe that the data gathered will end up costing them money.

It added, “rewarding consumers in the form of discounts, lower premiums, or consumer incentives, may be a way of encouraging the sharing of personal data while creating a sense of value… [which] outweighs some of the concerns.”

Return to sender

Which brings us back to GPS. For many smart applications, it has proved itself over and over again. But an inherent conflict remains between its demanding power requirements and IoT devices’ limited power supplies.

So, does this mean we’re about to see a parting of the ways, with many applications opting for Sigfox and other low-power alternatives, leaving GPS to niches in transport, sport, and military use?

Not at all, says Forse. “If you’re leaving port with a £1 million Ferrari on your ship, there aren’t many SSIDs out at sea, so GPS is always going to have its place. The choice of technology will depend on the value of the asset you’re tracking. All of these technologies will be embraced by business. None of them is going away.”

Internet of Business says

Forse is right. At heart, this is a debate about putting business value first, and then matching the right technologies to strategic business aims – at the right delivery speed and price.

This report raises a number of interesting points. First, developing sustainable, environmentally safe battery power remains a massive challenge – at least if we are to avoid littering the land with billions of tiny batteries. And with that, of course, comes the need to develop low-cost, low-power, high-speed devices and services, at the edge and at the core.

But there is a hidden point in Nik Rawlinson’s first report for Internet of Business. And it is to do with blockchains being linked with services, such as Etch, that track our location and store our data. Many people are lauding blockchain to the heights as the force that will defeat the data superpowers and democratise data; but it may have an unintended side effect: making us slaves to a system that stops paying us the moment we take a break.

Where are we at as a society? The unexpected question in a debate about location.

Read more: Opinion: Use blockchain to build a global data commons

Read more: IoT success demands radical cost reductions and minimal devices, say Cambridge Consultants