By Lauranne ETIENNE, Anaïs POIZAT, Sarah TOUIL, Guillaume DASSÉ, Martin DEFFONTAINES
Have you ever spotted wheelchairs as you came out of your plane?
These wheelchairs are not there randomly. They are here because the airport provides a service which allows the disabled to move more easily. The whole point is to help people.
What many of us might not realize is that it represents a massive logistical challenge, just to get the wheel chair at the right place at the right time. In the Lyon Saint-Exupéry Airport, the technical services have started using a brand-new system to keep track of the wheelchairs and make sure they are always where they are needed.
They equipped the wheelchairs with tracking devices which allow the airport team to locate them. This is one of the many examples, showing how the Internet of Things (IoT) and more specifically geolocation can improve our daily life.
Our goal, in this article, is to explore the potential and risks of geolocation.
We think IoT is a rising element in today’s world and one of the major domain in which tremendous innovations are discovered and commercialized.
For the last decade, IoT has taken a fast-growing place and is widely used in all sectors, from smartphones to medical equipment and home connected devices. It is one of the main axes of innovation and development today. Furthermore, in our current society, we just cannot seem to get enough communications, whether from social networks, shared clouds of pictures, documents or all kind of resources, there is a need for more connection between people.
Another interesting phenomenon is the fact that there is a multiplication of devices per person, i.e. that one person tends to own more and more devices, like phones, tablets, personal computer, and so on. Those devices need to be connected between one another in order to facilitate their use.
So, the need for connectivity, between people and devices, is real and increasing.
The rise of geolocation and its impact
This is one of the reasons why geolocation has become so important. It is now almost everywhere, from internet searches, to Facebook and running apps. Geolocation and the information it provides are widely used. What’s more, another use has recently surfaced.
In the last five years we noticed the emergence of self-driving technologies developed by various companies such as Google, Mercedes or Tesla. In fact, self-driving cars rely on several IoT technologies, including geolocation. It is also present in various areas such as aviation, supply chain management or even asset tracking. So, there is a huge development potential for this market. It is also useful in connecting people. Indeed, many apps (such as Snapchat, Moxy or Fast Where) are aiming to do that, by showing people who is around or near them and ultimately help them meet easily.
In the last decade, IoT has started to emerge as an amazing tool for increasing businesses’ productivity. In parallel, geolocation has also started to take an ever-growing importance in our lives and its applications joined our daily lives. One of the most widely known use appeared on Apple smartphones and its “locate my iPhone” function.
Today connected geolocation solutions have started to raise the attention of the biggest industries. The fact is, they came to realize that they could save tremendous amounts of both time and money if they were able to locate their equipment or merchandise in both indoors or outdoors. Wyres, the company taking care of wheelchairs issues at the Lyon-Saint-Exupéry Airport, developed a solution in order to make this possible. This represents a huge facilitation for problematics of supply chain, merchandise tracking and delivery for example.
To many accounts this solution is groundbreaking, most notably in matters of logistics and supply chain. It opens brand new perspectives and might hint at a total redefinition of these sectors. It is disruptive in the sense that it is bound to redefine a whole industry and way of working. Concretely speaking, being able to locate precisely one item in a giant warehouse means being able to manage your stocks way more efficiently. The geolocation will allow you to receive instantaneous and continuous inventories, which results in a facilitation in stock management and the possibility to have less stock without affecting the availability of any product. As we all know, reducing storage costs is one of the main axes of savings for any business. This definitely makes geolocation disruptive, it emerged without an expression or a demand.
However, it can also be seen as nothing but a regular and expected evolution of the last four decades. We live in a world of ever-growing information. We keep getting more information about pretty much whatever we want. After being able to locate items or people quite precisely on earth thanks to satellites and networks, one could argue it was only natural to start keeping track of items and merchandise when in transit from warehouses to shops for example, or of very expensive medical equipment in case it was stolen.
This ascertainment tends to mean that this geolocation solution is not disruptive technically speaking because it is just the combination of two existing technologies: geolocation and Wi-Fi/Bluetooth/GPS/LoRa/…. But the results from the use of this association, especially in the life of all businesses, is definitely disruptive as it should revolutionize many industrial sectors.
It is the use of the technology which is disruptive, not the technology per se. This has been very well understood by start-ups such as Wyres, which develop flexible geolocation solutions, suitable to all kind of industries.
This explains why this technology association quickly went from disruptive to sustaining because the market grew incredibly quickly, and start-ups are now developing on the existing market, while it originally started upon unknown market potentials which is one characteristic of disruptiveness according to Christensen.
A technology with important risks of abuses?
Interestingly, people often have mixed feelings about geolocation. When we talk about geolocation in public, we are very likely to hear about how dangerous it is for our privacy and how easily people can take advantage of this technology. Extreme opinions would argue that geolocation will put an end to our private lives and make us nothing more than overly stressed robots at work (Fig. 1).
Figure 1: A very dramatic approach of potential side-effects of geolocation
Leaving these caricatures aside, there are some true and legitimate concerns arising from the use of geolocation. Without being extreme, we can have doubts and concerns about the bad uses of this technology. How to make sure that there won’t be any abuse when it comes to controlling the workforce?
In Europe, the law is a clear response: you simply can’t force a worker to have a geolocation device of any sort if he doesn’t want to. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a European legislation, created in 2016, about many aspects of personal data, including geolocation. The notion of consent is essential and workers must agree to be tracked, which prevents the abuse risks. And outside of Europe? Obviously, the situation is far more complex. But to be very clear, this technology won’t make things worse in areas where the working rights are the least protected.
What about the future? While one may fear that companies are going to put governments under pressure to soften the legislation, Wyres has been very clear on this matter: “People should remain protected by the law, because let’s face it: who wants to be tracked all day long at work? Nobody.”
Is geolocation a “mature” technology?
On Foster’s S-Curve, geolocation can be placed at the second stage which is the development. Indeed, geolocation is a well-known technology and every smartphone owner accepts it. IT directors realized the impact geolocation could have on facilitating their business. There are projects, led by companies, aiming to create the factory of the future, also known as “Industry 4.0”, in which geolocation will play a major role.
There is still much to do before reaching the maturity stage. Even if the technology has been developed and mastered, the areas of application are still to reinvent.
Geolocation has a relative advantage because it can be useful in lots of sectors. It helps private individuals as well as companies. Indeed, more and more businesses are eager to adopt geolocation. The start-up Wyres works only in the B2B sector. It provides companies such as RATP, many grocery stores and airports with geolocation solutions. It favors efficient work, avoid theft, ensures workers security.
Furthermore, geolocation has a high degree of compatibility with today’s issues. For instance, geolocation technology is cost effective to the RATP when renovating its railways as it enables them to locate their equipment in the 12km of tunnels. This new technology is easy to integrate in our daily life since it improves it. However, it is sometimes rejected by consumers as they may look at it as a threat to their privacy. Nevertheless, in the future, geolocation will tend to become necessary because of an ever-more digitalized world.
Even though geolocation per se is quite technical, it has a high degree of simplicity of use. The treatment of the data includes very complex algorithms and a software (called “Solver” at Wyres), but when it comes to the solution provided in itself it is very intuitive. The degree of trialability of geolocation is high because we are already surrounded by devices using geolocation. Besides, the observability is quite important because benefits of this technology are very easy to understand, notably in terms of cost and time savings.
The technology is rather easy to imitate. Companies are trying to develop unique features for their solutions, but in the end, they use the same technology: geolocation! The only difference may come from the technology association.
How are geolocation companies differentiating themselves from one another?
There is no true war on design, the “tags” enabling the geolocation are as small and sober as possible. Most of the differences are coming from the technology, but geolocation companies are not new-technology inventors. They chose to use existing technologies in order to create new geolocation solutions.
There are several ways to track objects, the most classic ones are: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC, RFID, GPS. They all have their very own set of defaults. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth offer a rather short range and a pretty high energy consumption. You can’t follow something in real time with NFC and RFID. Regardless of its sustainability issues, GPS is also energy consuming and not adapted to indoor solutions at all. Wyres decided to use another technology: “Long Range”, more commonly known as “LoRa”, that is way more sustainable.
They felt like it was the best solution in order to offer long range geolocation in both indoors and outdoors, with a satisfying energy consumption. In fact, their beacons and tags have an autonomy of three years.
In France, there are nation-wide LoRa networks currently managed by Orange and Bouygues. Using these networks is not free, you must subscribe to one of these two operators. However, companies can very well build their own LoRa networks around and inside their infrastructures, but this option is more financially demanding. Yet the precision of your geolocation does not rely only on the technology that you use. Most of it comes from the quality of your algorithms that are behind your software, called “Solver” at Wyres.
If receiving data is one thing, treating it properly is far more challenging!
Wyres’ solution can offer an indoor precision up to 5-10 meters. Today’s geolocation companies all include their very own engineers and developers, it is the core of their activity. Because behind these startups, there is a complete ecosystem.
Startups do not have unlimited funds, that is why they must get rid of the most expensive tasks. While they give instructions regarding the packaging and the design part, they delegate the full production of the beacons and “tags”. The chips for example are manufactured by giants of this specialized industry. They have close economic relations with integrators, editors, distributors and operators. All of these companies are part of the geolocation ecosystem. This makes complementary assets very important for geolocation start-ups.
We have seen that geolocation has an enormous potential. It is a flourishing business, as Camille Varrot, Business Developer for Wyres, said: “We barely have to look for new customers, plenty of them are directly coming to us because they need to solve important logistic problems!”. More and more start-ups, such as Wyres, are trying to find new solutions and applications for this technology.
The incredible increase of productivity promised by such technology could eventually lead companies and Human Resources departments to adopt abusive practices, but we stand protected by the laws. When it comes to the future, all the worries behind the ever-rising connectivity of our society are suggesting that the law won’t get any softer on these matters.
The key to a successful geolocation business is the flexibility of the solutions. Many industries, such as art and culture, are still waiting for evolutions of this promising technology. Finding even more suitable solutions for every specific need, would obviously take the potential of the market to even higher levels. Finding these new solutions might be easier with a direct collaboration with the companies.
How about manufacturing a product with geolocation solutions directly included? Many companies are actively considering new partnerships to do so, as it might look like the next step in the integration of geolocation.