Comparing Tracking Technologies

Whether you are worried about having your dog run away, losing your keys, or having your bike stolen, there are several tracking devices out there to help you keep track of your most valuable possessions. With so many product options available, it can be confusing as to which tracker is best for you. Not all trackers are created equal, however, and to use one effectively, it is important to know how the different kinds work and in which situations each method will be most useful. Below we will explain the four different kinds of tracking technologies (GPS, RFID, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi), describe how the respective technologies work, and the pros and cons to each.

 

GPS

How it works:

Global Positioning System (GPS) is a radio navigation system that uses satellites to allow users to pinpoint its exact location at all times of the day, anywhere in the world. They are fundamentally different from RFID and Bluetooth technology in that a GPS device is not a personal device searching for nearby tags; rather it uses several satellites to determine its location on the globe. The tag then uploads those coordinates to a server using a cellular network, where it can be accessed by a personal device, such as a phone or computer.

Pros:

A key benefit to a GPS tracker is that it has an unlimited range. By using a GPS tracker, you forfeit the game of “hot and cold” or “Marco Polo” because your tag can find its location and directly point itself out on a map. This kind of tracking technology is a great choice if you are worried about your pet going missing, having your bike or car stolen, or need to track something from a long distance. You can simply look up the tag’s location, as it will be broadcasting and updating in real-time.

Cons:

In many ways, a GPS tracker can be exactly what you are looking for, however, there are some drawbacks that you should consider when deciding which tracker is best for you. In contrast to RFID trackers, the tag in a GPS system has to do all of the connection work, causing a significant decrease in battery life and increase in product size. Usually these tags need to be recharged every two or three days. Similarly, there can be many barriers that interfere with the accuracy of the tracker. GPS trackers need direct contact with the satellites that are locating it and thus an unobstructed view of the sky. Anything from bad weather to tall buildings or simply being indoors can temporarily disconnect the GPS signal. Lastly, GPS trackers don’t provide the same accuracy as an RFID device, as GPS satellites usually pinpoint an object’s location within 5-10 meters. The combination of these factors make GPS trackers less useful for keeping track of your everyday objects. The tags are a little too bulky to keep comfortably on a keychain, and aren’t accurate enough to find the wallet under the couch.

 

RFID

How it works:

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) systems have two components: a reader and a tag. An RFID tag is used to transmit information to the reader. The reader processes this information to make sure it’s communicating with the correct tag, and can detect its distance from the tag by checking the delay on the return signal. This allows the reader to play a game of “hot and cold” with the tag, guiding you closer to your lost object the closer (or “warmer”) you bring the reader to the tag.

Pros:

There are several benefits to the simplicity of an RFID tracker. For one, they are very accurate and can detect tags as close as a couple centimeters away. This makes them very good at detecting objects that are easily lost in small places or hidden spots around the house. In addition, all of the information processing happens in the reader allowing for the tag to be very small and energy efficient. Some companies have even claimed that their tags last over ten years without a battery change! If you are notorious for misplacing your keys or wallet, a tracker with RFID technology could be your solution.

Cons:

The biggest disadvantage to RFID tracking is that it’s primarily used for short-range tracking. Anything outside of a range of approximately 100 meters will not be detected by the reader. Similarly, if you are prone to losing things, this type of tracking technology may not be for you because in order to locate the tag on your lost item, you must not lose the reader. Without a reader, you will not be able to find your lost keys or wallet, no matter how close or far away they are.

 

Bluetooth

How it works:

Similar to an RFID tracker, Bluetooth trackers consists of two components: a primary device (usually a smartphone or computer) and a tag. However, Bluetooth works in a two-way detection process. The two components must be paired and identify each other in order to access the hardware of the other, respectively. In other words, with Bluetooth tracking, you can use either device to track the other causing a “Marco- Polo” effect. In addition, more than one tag can be connected to the primary device allowing you to track several items at a time.

Pros:

It is unusual to lose your phone, keys, wallet, and cat all at the same time, but with Bluetooth tracking, you only need one of the tags to find the primary device and ultimately the other tags. The more tags you use, the more useful the Bluetooth tracker becomes, allowing for this two way detection to be Bluetooth’s biggest strength.

Cons:

One of Bluetooth’s biggest weakness is that, of the four kinds of tracking methods, it connects over the shortest distance (only up to about 30 meters). This can be extremely inefficient when trying to track something mobile, like a pet, or from far away, like a drone. Due to the two way connectivity of Bluetooth, the tags are larger and require more energy than those of RFID systems. Similarly, having bluetooth constantly on can drain a smartphone’s battery within a couple of hours and potentially cause the user to be at risk of security loss for sensitive information on their phone.

 

Wi-Fi

How it works:

Wi-Fi trackers use Wi-Fi hotspots in close proximity of the tag and determine the distance from the tag to the hotspot by identifying the strength of the signal it is picking up. Similar to how GPS trackers use satellites, Wi-Fi trackers use Wi-Fi hotspots. Hotspots have a geographical location connected to their device (such as a MAC or PC) location. If the device can detect hotspots in at least three different directions, it can pinpoint the location of the object to about five meters of its exact position.

Pros:

In contrast to GPS trackers, Wi-Fi trackers are not vulnerable to disconnects due to an obstructed view to the sky. Wi-Fi trackers share the advantage of long range tracking and map location, but without the use of satellites; thus allowing the tracker to work the same indoors, outdoors, and with bad weather as long as there are Wi-Fi hotspots close by.  

Cons:

Wi-Fi trackers require overlap of hotspots in order to work at its most accurate capacity. This means that Wi-Fi trackers are most useful in highly populated and urbanised areas where there is a surplus of hotspots. In rural places, the strength and amount of the hotspots is generally not as high as it needs to be for the tracker to work.

 

All in all, each method of tracking can be beneficial depending on the object you are tracking and the location you are in. If you are looking for a long distance tracking device, GPS and Wi-Fi will be your best bet. If you’re determined to never lose your keys again, RFID may be the technology for you. If you don’t want to keep track of an extra controller, consider Bluetooth. Most importantly, if you need to track something you really love, especially a pet, consider a device that has as many of these technologies as possible.