Not too many years ago, we saw the first surge in the sale of laptop computers. The portability factor, along with their ability to extend the workday, made them an almost instant hit. Along with that popularity came a wave of laptop thefts that caused most industry security directors to go looking for solutions. The widespread availability of Electronic Article Surveillance systems in the retail world made it seem like there should be an easy fix to the laptop problem. Well, it turned out the problem was a lot more difficult that any of us imagined, and the solutions that entered the marketplace fell short in effectiveness and cost.
While these technologies faded from the scene in the security industry, you may be interested to know that the technology to track high-value assets has continued to evolve and grow. These systems are now being sold to track assets in environments such as hospitals, where there is a real ROI on knowing where the infusion pumps, vital sign monitors, x-ray equipment, wheelchairs and even patient beds are at any given moment. This technology, now known as RTLS (Real Time Locating System), is also gaining interest for supply chain applications to locate entire pallets of goods in a warehouse, as well as other applications such as research labs, where expensive equipment needs to be inventoried or located without spending the time to do expensive searches.
So, is there a security application after all? Perhaps — especially if there is also a good operational reason, like the hospital example, to justify such a system. At the very least, security departments need to keep an eye on emerging technologies like this one that have real potential to solve the thorny loss problems that we just seem to put up with today.
Looking back over our experience with these products, several key factors jump out as being important to the success of the system:
Tracking — We made a mistake with the early systems by making them portal-based. Sensing an asset passing through a doorway is just not good enough. Instead, we need to track the whereabouts of an asset anywhere in the building. Why? First, portals rarely serve any purpose other than security and so they are much harder to justify than a system that provides location. Second, a system that only senses passage through a portal has too many security shortcomings. Take the asset out through an unprotected window or remove the tag in the lunchroom, and the system provides no further protection.
Accuracy — If you are going to track assets, the system needs to be reasonably accurate when it provides locations. A system that says a monitor is on the second floor when it really is on the third floor will do more to frustrate than inform. Frustrating systems get turned off.
Reliability — The same is true for reliability. Assets cannot just disappear from view because the electric forklift puts out a lot of interference, or because the new metal supply cabinet seems to somehow be upsetting the system.
Battery Life — Active systems require batteries in their tags and the life of those batteries varies significantly. In addition to looking for products with a long battery life, any good system needs to help track the life of and manage the maintenance of those wear items.
There are wide variations in cost for these systems. In particular, system design and installation can be significantly different due to the complexity of the required infrastructure. Evaluation of any system or technology must go beyond the raw equipment cost.
How do these systems work?
The technology behind these systems has changed significantly since we first started talking about RTLS. Right now, there are seven basic types of systems, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.