Kurt Nehrenz

BlueCats Chief Technology Officer, Strategy

Science-fiction writer William Gibson’s quote, ‘the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed’ has been repeated so many times it has become tech industry gospel and at BlueCats we are not inclined to argue. What some industries are doing with Real Time Location Systems and its component technologies such as Ultra-Wide Band are the future, and the tech is right on the cusp of going mainstream.  

As we approach this inflection point, we are getting out the crystal ball in an attempt to peer into the future. We are asking industry leaders eleven questions (because ten was just not enough) about where RTLS is now, where it’s going and where it could go next. 

We have started off the series with BlueCats’ own Co-founder and Chief of Technology Strategy, Kurt Nehrenz. A self-admitted sports nut who graduated from Rice University with majors in chemical engineering and visual arts, Kurt is an enthusiastic advocate for the ability of technology to make the world a better place.

  1. What are the top five problems that RTLS (Real Time Location Systems) will solve in the next 5-10 years? 

The number one problem RTLS will solve is industrial workplace safety through providing real time awareness of where people are rather than where they should be.  

Next is general efficiency. That takes different shapes but applies to any valuable asset that is part of a daily workflow. For example, making sure an organization is buying and maintaining the right size fleet for what they are trying to do. Hospitals buy more wheelchairs than they need because they do not always know where each one is and when they need one, they need it to be close at hand.  

And it is not just how much an asset costs. Every time somebody pauses to find something, there are a trillion knock on effects so when you are tracking a piece of equipment, the savings are not just in how long it takes you to find that equipment, or its value. What if not being able to find that piece of equipment is blocking sixty other people from doing what is next on their list? That is where the efficiency gains from RTLS really snowball.

Similarly, more refined business continuity plans will affect insurance premiums. If companies are being proactive, more efficient, they lose less, which reduces their risk profile – basically you are spending less to cover your ass. 

And there’s fusion concepts when you start to talk about RTLS combined with next generation access control and building management. We will see something like those sci-fi movies where things just happen as you walk around because the systems know what is going on.  

That science-fiction vision is coming closer and closer to reality, and it ties into a consumer’s view of RTLS. The best analogy is global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) such as GPS. Think back to what life was like before GPS was prevalent, people relied on 500-page street atlases to navigate from Place A to Place B. Now everybody has that on their smartphone. The same thing is going to occur at a micro level inside buildings.  

We do not know how that might eventuate. Maybe we have corneal implants that guide us around instead of our phones, however, the expectation is the world around you tells you about what you should be doing and where you should go.

On the flipside, big data is a blessing and a curse, and the average person will have to opt in or out of a lot more things as part of day-to-day life and there are some concerns with that aspect of RTLS.

“…it is not just how much an asset costs… What if not being able to find that piece of equipment is blocking sixty other people from doing what is next on their list? That is where the efficiency gains from RTLS really snowball.”

  1. What is the best use of RTLS to date?

I think the coolest is all the sports tracking stuff that is going on, but that is only because I love sports.  

The best adoption of RTLS comes from embracing the concept that assets can be used to track other assets in a cascade. It is a concept that takes some people a little time to grasp and even when people do grasp it, it is currently hard to unify the data.  

For example, a company has thousands of employees who all have smartphones, tablets and laptops; and thousands of trucks and trailers loaded with all sorts of tools. It starts tracking people and its big, expensive items but realizes that once it has figured out that ecosystem it can track items the next level down, the generator, compressor, shovels, crowbars etc. that are usually on the truck or trailer. And the beauty is that because all the company’s powered assets are now scanners, if a shovel has been left at a construction site and it has a tag on it, the next time a company asset goes past it will ping that shovel sitting on the site, and someone can retrieve it. 

That is really the end game for RTLS. Track everything that is valuable all the time.

  1. What are the top five problems that RTLS will solve in the next 20 to 30 years? 

Ten years is a long time for technology but around that time I think we will never lose anything, unless someone really wants it to be lost. Twenty to 30 years’ time, we are looking at the sort of systems portrayed in the movie Minority Report. Everyone is plugged in all the time, everything is sensed, the system knows where you are, what interests you, what you should be doing. And there are all the downsides that come with that too.    

  1. What is driving RTLS adoption in industry right now? 

Safety is the first thing that gets budget, especially in industrial environments, and it is why companies start putting tags on people, but very quickly businesses want to know more about time usage, efficiency and staff utilization. It can also be as simple as resolving billing conflicts; a subcontractor says he was onsite for 12 hours, you know he was only there for two, RTLS data proves who is correct.  

With UWB (Ultra-Wide Band), stuff like Samsung, Apple, Air Tags and unlocking your car, house etc. with your phone is driving awareness of what UWB can do even though it is usually not categorized as RTLS in the media. 

In the United States and other advanced economies there is a recognition that reliance upon foreign supply chains can bite you and companies are looking to insource and are asking, ‘what can we do to improve manufacturing efficiency so we can rely on ourselves again.’ There is a lot of momentum on that front. and that often comes down to RTLS or IoT concepts.  

Some manufacturers are making things with a slot for a tag, or the tag is already built in. That is where critical volume will come from. It removes the person with a scanner and zip ties, putting a tag on; something just arrives as being trackable.

  1. What will drive RTLS adoption in your industry in 10 years’ time? 

People will be forced to. RTLS will be mandated by government or suppliers, just like years ago Walmart mandated RFID. Competition will also drive folks to use it. RTLS offers real safety and efficiency benefits so if you are not using it, you will have a hard time competing with those who do.

There are also government policies that support RTLS concepts. For example, in the US, an Emergency 911 mandate says you must locate an emergency call from any cell phone to room level within any building across the country.  

Implementation keeps getting pushed back but, in the future, if you build a new building, you will have to put in Bluetooth and UWB infrastructure so that people who make 911 calls can be found. That sort of legislation is starting to push its way through and in 10 years it will be widespread. 

“We will never lose anything, unless someone really wants it to be lost.”

  1. What is holding back RTLS adoption now? 

The perception of cost and lack of emphasis on hard return on investment (ROI).  

When people see a tag that costs 20 times the cost of an old school passive RFID tag, there is some sticker shock for sure and some of the ROI cases for RTLS are still more gut feel than data backed. Folks inherently understand the efficiencies but are not spending the time drilling into how much they saved by introducing this system. We are getting there but ROI uncertainty is holding things back.

There is also a lot of different people are out there offering different flavors, so it is hard to pick a trusted supplier. Does that supplier lock me in to only buying from them into eternity? Or is there more of an open collaborative ecosystem for RTLS on the way? People are scared to commit because of that uncertainty. 

  1. What is likely to hold back RTLS adoption in the future?   

New technology. Technology like LiDAR, cameras and AI/machine learning may take on more of the grunt work in place of readers and tags. It is more likely all those things combined will be a killer ecosystem. 

Batteries could be an issue. If you want to put a battery in everything that is valuable to you, that is a lot of batteries to buy and to recycle. 

One thing that may hold back adoption is that people say, ‘no, actually, I don’t want to be tracked at this level.’ In response, organizations are going to have to be open, honest and prove they are being responsible with how they use RTLS. For example, ‘the policy is clear, this technology is here to keep you safe and the only reason I’ll ever unlock this data is to do a Blackbox-like playback of a disaster’ or ‘I’ll only open this box when there’s an emergency evacuation and I need to know where everybody is.’ 

Companies have to be super clear because the fear is real and there will probably be some horror stories of people misusing RTLS, when data is not kept correctly, or shared incorrectly. Scary stuff like a nefarious organization bombing a building because a compromised RTLS tells them someone they want to kill is in there or an abuser using UWB to track their partner or ex-partner in real time.    

  1. Bluetooth is now ubiquitous, UWB is just getting started but how will mainstream adoption of UWB impact your industry, business and society at large? 

I would lean on the GNSS analogy again, it really starts with that blue dot. Bluetooth was a half-step towards doing that on a micro level, but the combination of Bluetooth and UWB is going to cement a huge global change because most people have a smartphone or smartwatch and will be contributing to the UWB ecosystem.

And again, over time what made GNSS really useful was apps like Google Maps which digitized the entire world. That level of digitization will happen for indoor spaces, starting with shopping malls, presuming shopping malls stick around, stadiums, places like that. It goes back to an earlier point; you will never lose your kid in a shopping mall again.    

  1. What are the most important issues in the next 10-15 years when it comes to the interaction of humans / people / AI and RTLS systems? 

Trust. That is the big one. Are these systems being deployed for good or evil? Is that trust real? When trust is broken, there could be a whole lot of pushback from consumers and for good reason. The next one would be what to do with all the information that will be at folks’ fingertips and potential decision making. A lot of people claim they are embracing big data, but they are just creating a mountain of data, there is no interpretation level. The same risk is right in front of us with RTLS and there is going to be monumentally more data than people are dealing with today.  

People will lean on machine learning and AI to make sense of it all but if there is nobody in the middle, checking the inputs and checking why these conclusions are being made, there is a danger that people trust what the system tells them without really knowing why. That sort of dangerous cycle just repeats itself again and you get something like the Australian Government’s ‘Robodebt’ debacle but on an even more massive scale.

“…Apps like Google Maps… digitized the entire world. That level of digitization will happen for indoor spaces [and] you will never lose your kid in a shopping mall again.”

  1. In what way does RTLS/UWB represent a ‘killer app’ for you?

It is the coordination you can achieve when you know where all your things are, where all your people are, you have all your spaces mapped and you can be alerted to something going on and stop it before it happens. 

There is a real beauty to that and in addition to the obvious efficiencies, it will save peoples’ lives.   

  1. Interoperability will be a vital piece of the puzzle if UWB is to become ubiquitous like Bluetooth. How important are standards to this happening? 

It is critical. Ultra-wideband has fizzled over the last 15 years because of competing proprietary attempts. We have to get past that and reach the level where there is enough sharing and interoperability that everybody decides to play along, that is where you are going to get critical mass. But that will partly come from society trusting that UWB is a useful thing.  

For the longest time Bluetooth was that that shitty technology that drops phone calls in my car, but standards and interoperability between Bluetooth devices has eliminated a lot of that trouble over time and now Bluetooth is something that just works. 

Obviously not everybody is going to be totally transparent, especially when there are so many concerns about what you can do with that kind of high precision information. Apple’s never going to share exactly what they are doing with Samsung and vice versa. And there are always going to be companies that implement UWB in a way that is purposefully not interoperable so they can guarantee that your data is your data, and it stays within the confines of your organization. But ultimately, people will need to trust in UWB and know it just works.