An Investigation into Indoor Positioning Systems (Part One): How IPS Can Save Lives

Indoor Positioning Systems (IPS) are gaining traction in many different industries, including supply chains. From airports to emergency response the benefits are becoming more clear. The most important part of this conversation is why it matters to you. For anyone to adapt the technology, it has to have a noticeable impact. In this post we'll cover the safety aspects, navigation within large buildings, the technologies IPS utilizes, and how this translates to helping out your supply chain.

In last month’s article, one of the big advantages we noticed in Augmented Reality was safety features offered. IPS can work within AR to help improve the safety of workers in a warehouse. Due to the ability to track devices, emergency responders will be able to attend to those in danger areas. Triangulating the whereabouts of a mobile device in large buildings (such as airports and warehouses) is what IPS is all about. Large buildings can be difficult places to navigate. When was the last time you went to Ikea and didn’t feel completely lost at least once? Now, imagine trying to explain to someone where in the store you are when faced with an emergency. Luckily Ikea, with the help of Google, is one of the early adopters of IPS within their stores.

The FCC has been working on this technology since 2012, making it a priority because people are abandoning landline telephones for cell phones. Emergency responders have the ability to locate landlines within large office buildings and apartments. Cell phones don't offer this functionality. According to the 2012 report, they were years away from having the technology functional. This is one of the rare cases where the mainstream spread of smartphones has actually pushed back our technology.

Google is currently gathering data for indoor maps (surprise, surprise). Most people are familiar with Google cars driving around cities, but indoor maps naturally use a different method. In 2014, Google unveiled The Cartographer, an indoor mapping backpack. The backpacker will walk around a building with The Cartographer to create a floor plan. Building owners are also able to submit blueprints, adding points of interest such as museum exhibits or room numbers.

For those in metropolitan cities, chances are Google has started to incorporate some local buildings into their maps. Here in Toronto, buildings like the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) have been mapped out. It’s a neat little feature we didn’t know existed until starting to write this article. In Google Maps, you’ll notice compatible buildings contain detailed floor plans. In this case, the ROM has seven different floors and all contain a floor plan and label each section. As a first time visitor, you may find value in walking directions between the exhibits. See below for a couple screenshots.

IPS relies on different technologies: WiFi, Bluetooth, and RFID to name a few. Each of the technologies has its advantages. Wi-Fi is already integrated into a lot of buildings, so often it is the easiest technology to integrate. Regardless of the method chosen, transmitters need to installation throughout the building. Google’s system uses the existing Wi-Fi hotspots to track your location indoors. Bluetooth offers better reception but involves the installation of many Bluetooth beacons. Disney has started integrating RFID in their restaurants. Through the use of a MagicBand, the staff knows of your table without them ever having sat you. Other companies are using magnets or Visible Light Communication for indoor mapping.

Different companies use different technologies but they are all working towards the same goal, locating you.
Now, we originally decided to tackle this topic because of it's ability to optimize supply chains. This is a technology that we are considering implementing in our software, Fusion to help boost picking productivity. Larger warehouses with a quick turnaround on stock that utilizes temporary workers would see the greatest ROI. (Anyone who has worked a retail job knows that it takes a while to learn a stock room.) An IPS can make warehouse operation teams more productive by directing workers to stock on pick lists from their smartphone, smart-glasses or other connected devices. In these scenarios, IPS is much easier to setup since usually only one location needs setup with the required hardware.

Now that we have discussed some of the benefits to an IPS and the technologies that help make it possible, we want to discuss how to implement this into your business. Maybe you find yourself in the position as a business owner or warehouse manager who could benefit from an IPS. In part two of our series, we are going to look at how you can work with an IT team to have one setup, what it takes to implement such a system, and at what point it becomes beneficial to your business.