Home5GWhat is asset tracking, and what is it worth? (Why it’s a jungle – and why it’s massive)

What is asset tracking, and what is it worth? (Why it’s a jungle – and why it’s massive)

What is asset tracking, anyway? And what is it worth? Because tracking of machine data, one way or another, is easily conflated with the internet-of-things (IoT) movement, at large. And we all know about the mad growth slated for general purpose IoT. Fifty billion connections, by 2025? Gulp

That single finger-in-the-air forecast, by Cisco and Ericsson, way back in 2010, has cast an impossible shadow over the sector’s progress; the industry has been trying to shake it ever since, even as it has grappled for massive scale. Because ‘massive’ is the word in IoT circles; it is implicit in analyst forecasts and specified in cellular standards. 

The incoming 5G ‘ecosystem’ – for once, the term is useful, to describe a multi-faceted fifth-generation cellular tech supposed to get under the skin of the global economy – presents a three-tier family of specifications, including a go-faster version of mobile broadband (eMBB), already here, an industrial-grade variant scheduled for some time after 2022/3 (URLLC), and a low-power machine technology (mMTC), designed to kit-out most of those forecasts.

This last acronymical spec, defined five years ago in Release 13 of the 5G NR standard, declines as ‘massive machine-type communications’, and sets five requirements: battery life of 10 years; coverage penetration of 164 dB; throughput of 160 bits per second; capacity for million devices in a square kilometre; round-trip latencies of 10 seconds, with payloads of 20 bytes; and, importantly, ultra-low cost hardware. 

These are the terms for cellular to serve massive-scale IoT; but they guide and underpin, effectively, the key traits of other low-power wide-area (LPWA) networking technologies, as well. These others include the likes of Sigfox and LoRaWAN, which have had a run on ‘massive’ IoT while the cellular industry has pulled its socks up, rolling out NB-IoT and LTE-M, twin 4G-based low-power IoT technologies, as forerunners for 5G-era mMTC. 

So is IoT ‘massive’, yet? It looks pretty big already, propped up by these proprietary LPWA technologies. Depending on who you talk to (trust), the current run-reports say IoT connections will go from 7.6 billion in 2019 to 24.1 billion in 2030 (Transforma Insights), or else double between 2019 and 2025, to land at about 24 billion (GSMA Intelligence). Analysys Mason is more cautious: numbers will grow annually by about a fifth to finish up at 5.3 billion in 2028.

Who is right? Because no one agrees; which is the trouble with crystal-gazing, of course. Except there is consensus across the stats and specs that it is going to be massive, and an argument to say it already is so. A billion is a billion, after all, and smartphone sales, by comparison, have stalled at about two percent growth per annum. Plus, the definition of ‘IoT-connected’ as directly-linked to the internet (IP) excludes the whole 802.15.4 sector.

In particular, the in-building market is being riddled with low-energy Bluetooth (BLE) sensors at a faster-rate than the IoT sector is deploying gateways to carry their payloads online. Look at the business being done with Bluetooth in warehouses, factories, and offices; its backers are shooting for 32 percent and 26 percent annual growth on positioning and networking devices in the period to 2024 – to over 1.5 billion units, from zero a couple of years ago.

And what about Zigbee and Thread, and all the other short-range technologies that are networking ‘things’? There is a mad array of technologies in play, and boundaries are easily blurred; the terminology can be stretched to cover the mass ‘sensorization’ (eughh) of the broad enterprise sector. It is a jungle out there, and (the) jungle is massive – as the old 1990s music scene would tell us. 

But what about asset tracking, to return to the start? It’s a jungle, too. Just ask Vodafone, which divides IoT in two: into tracking and monitoring. There is really nothing else to it, it says. The discipline grew out of connecting vehicles and vending machines, and then smart meters, and used to be called machine-to-machine (M2M) communications; the difference is low-power networking is being served by dedicated infrastructure, and costs have plummeted. 

Phil Skipper, head of global IoT development at Vodafone, says: “With IoT, you basically want to know where the thing is, and what it’s doing – and one is achieved by asset tracking and the other by remote monitoring. So tracking is one of the two main applications for IoT, and it’s one of the oldest. But it has tended to be limited to the high end, around either high-value items or high-value shipments, with lots in the same container.”

Anecdotally, analyst house IDC suggests as much as 80-90 percent of it can be reduced to tracking. “I mean, if you’re considering workers as an asset, then you have pretty much everything covered,” says Laszlo Toth, research manager at the firm. IDC breaks the IoT market down into 70-odd individual use cases, plus some “convenient others”; asset tracking, by itself, does not feature. 

But, then, asset tracking is a parent category for a number of them. Toth reels off half a dozen: space management, agriculture and animal tagging, production asset management in manufacturing, hospital asset tracking, ATM remote tracking, and freight monitoring. “Those are the ones that come to mind. But if we are adamant, we could probably list another dozen-or-so use cases that might also be considered asset tracking.” 

Toth says the IoT market was worth $685 billion in 2019, of which about 15 percent, or $86 billion, went in these six market sub-segments. The total market will grow at a compound rate of 11.3 percent per year in the period to 2024, reckons IDC; growth in these tracking disciplines will be lower in the same period, at 9.8 percent. It is a big chunk, then, but hardly a catch-all in this narrowed-down segmentation. 

What gives? Because the story is supposed to be that asset tracking is the great engine for IoT, which will propel the sector to massive scale. Those statistics do not appear to tell that story, quite. Toth, like Skipper, reasons that asset tracking is the oldest trade in the M2M market, and suggests IDC’s six-strong grouping leans towards legacy higher-value tracking disciplines.

“It was the first use case IoT existed for; it is a fairly mature and well developed market, already, and so dynamic growth is harder to achieve. A lot of newer IoT technologies are geared towards other use cases. All the same, the growth for asset tracking is still very high in the forecast period,” he says. But dynamism is cascading through the whole market, including in tracking cases, as Toth’s counterparts at ABI Research note.

Sensor devices are getting smaller, cheaper, and smarter driving cost downwards, and innovation upwards, and volumes outwards, towards both massive scale and punchier functionality. Shipments of asset trackers will increase by more than 50 percent annually through 2024, says ABI.

Growth will come as the discipline moves from tracking of high value goods into low-value high-volume markets, which will quickly account for most shipment numbers. More massive scale is just around the corner, the argument goes, just as sure as technological innovation endures – and the jungle of technologies define and multiply new assets to be tracked.

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