Where in the world: 7 ways location technology is changing industries

Location (both indoor and out) technologies are spurring rapid digital transformation and innovative new solutions across almost every part of life – even though the geographic information systems (GIS) they are inherently built around date from the 1970’s.

These systems rely on three main backbones:

  • Geographic information systems (GIS) which use a variety of types of location-based data to build 3D visualizations and maps
  • Indoor positioning systems (IPS) that find and track people or things indoors using a range of different technologies
  • Internet of Things (IoT) devices (like beacons, sensor, etc.), which provide data to inform GIS and IPS systems

These work with a variety of other technologies, including mobile connectivity, WANs, PANs, GPS, smartphones, connected devices and more. Used together, these tools are driving the creation of new industries, unlocking productivity and creating new opportunity. And consumers already trust and use them – over 90% of people now use navigation systems on their smartphones.

Joining the tech industry dots

These solutions depend on a myriad range of technologies, which are now working together as never before. Mobile networks, LoRa and Bluetooth LE; 4G (soon 5G); and a range of indoor and outdoor IoT solutions mean everything, from you and your children to the HVAC system in your warehouse, is connected.

This makes it possible for enterprise users to reach customers where they are, protect employees in the field, monitor systems for fraud – and even manage public transport and heavy infrastructure.

It’s an opportunity that is spawning rapid development of new business propositions ranging from the truly revolutionary to the radically mundane. Location is a valuable peer to emerging data analytics-driven solutions. Together, these enable compelling B2C tools that provide consumers with highly personalized connections to their favorite brands.

Like so many solutions in this age of digital change, these tools pose a price. Forrester analyst James McCormick warns that companies that don’t adopt insight-driven, customer-centric strategies will struggle to remain in business. Machina Research believes that over half of 15 billion connected devices will depend on geodata by 2020.

Let’s take a look at some of the ways location data – sometimes with other technologies – is already transforming some industries. Then we'll look at emerging solutions that may deliver even more change ahead.

1) Retail in a connected age

Location tech in retail is a huge deal. While many retailers already boost customer relationship marketing efforts with highly personalized communications, location introduces new directions – and may open innovative new ways to do business.

One great example of an innovative approach to customer-focus is at Adidas’ global flagship retail store on Oxford Street in London. This mobile-friendly approach lets customers select and order products on their smartphones wherever they are and sees staff approach them with their purchases as they walk into the store. They can then try before they buy, make changes and get advice. Location technology means staff are alerted as customers enter the store.

Location in retail isn’t just about being where customers are when they shop – but about making sure the shop itself is where people want to go. One giant Russian retailer opened 2,500 stores in 2018. To do so, it used a combination of data analytics and location information to identify trends in geographic areas. This enabled the retailer to engage in a rapid expansion, positioning stores at the optimal points of proximity to customers and distance from competitors.

Of course, location technology can also help customers navigate their way around stores or find the correct shops when they visit a mall.

2) Marketing to a digital planet

While there’s a little overlap between marketing and retail, marketeers in both fields benefit from a range of geolocation-based tools. Think about Starbuck’s experiments sending discount coupons to customers when they shop, including targeted marketing efforts before they enter competing retailers or targeted advertising within popular maps, which McDonalds has been exploring for a while.

Marketers can do much more with location, of course. One compelling illustration is a service provided by IBM Watson and the Weather Company. This lets brands dynamically alter the ads they show visitors online based on local weather conditions and geolocation data – so if you visit a website on a hot day, you may see ads for barbecue equipment, while ads for snowshoes may appear in winter.

Focal clustering helps identify where consumers are looking and is part of the arsenal of tools used to tailor events and visitor attractions to consumer desire. Predictive analytics and location work together to provide targeted offers to consumers, while retailers use beacons and location data to manage and improve the customer journey or provide contextually and person-focused relevant advertising coupons.

Solutions like these are also useful for global campaigns on social media. BIA Advisory Services predicts that geotargeted mobile ad spend will reach $38 billion by 2022. Zenith Media claims that spending on social media ads in 2019 eclipsed that spent on print, with $84 billion spent on social and just $69 billion on print. Location-specific advertising will account for 45% of all mobile ad spending by 2021, says BIA Kelsey.

3) The great outdoors

Location tracking is used in agriculture for crop monitoring, livestock maintenance, tracking of agricultural machinery and more.

Pets, belongings, livestock and wildlife can all be tracked using off-the-shelf GPS trackers (such as Tile), yielding insights that might drive understanding and improve business outcomes.

Think, too, about regional management. An award-winning project under the sobloo umbrella, TeleCense uses Copernicus Sentinel satellite images to deliver accurate geo-localized population estimates and demographic trends on a local or regional basis.

City transit authorities are using these technologies to track commuter journeys in order to identify efficiencies they can deploy to cut costs and improve travel.

4) The great indoors

Ride-sharing schemes, food delivery and a range of casual gig-economy jobs all rely on location technologies to tell service providers where you are in order to connect you to what you need or where you want to go.

Mass-market mapping services, including those from Google and Apple, provide growing catalogs of indoor maps that enable you to navigate airports, train stations and shopping malls.

Smart home devices also make use of these technologies. Smart vacuum cleaners from Roomba create indoor maps of your home to help them clean, but offices, universities and public spaces are deploying these systems to enable seamless navigation of their premises to track important assets, to identify congestion (in conjunction with beacon-based sensor systems) and even to provide up-to-date information around parking spaces.

5) Crime and fraud prevention

Fraud prevention systems based on location data aren’t new. Mobile networks, digital stores and delivery systems all make use of this information when confirming orders.

In banking, some new players, such as Revolut, take this further by offering customers innovative location-based services, such as automated travel insurance.

Insurers also use this kind of information, using GIS-based big data analysis of patterns to help them identify risk trends based on precise analysis of real data. City planners use these systems to plan city infrastructure, while law enforcement uses similar technologies to analyze information to detect and forecast crime. The Los Angeles Police Department’s Real-Time Analysis Critical Response (RACR) Division works with Palantir to forecast crime on a daily basis in response to historical crime data. Police actually use this information to select where to place patrol cars at their most optimal position for crimes that have not yet taken place.

6) The digital transformation of health

Anyone with a Fitbit or Apple Watch will understand how location data informs personal health, from exercise trackers to finding your local doctor’s practice or gym, but there’s more going on.

There’s also an emerging market for tracking devices for elderly relatives, particularly those living alone with cognitive diseases, such as dementia.

Hospitals use beacon-based tracking systems to track life-saving emergency equipment, while technologies from IBM, Apple and others enable staff tracking and emergency triage team assembly on the hoof. A nurse on duty can see exactly where other team members are during an emergency, and this can help deliver appropriate life-saving decisions.

Information is power, too. Location data enables large organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to track and respond to information around the spread of deadly disease or crop failure or to respond more rapidly to emergency situations.

7) Logistics and distribution

Air transport technology specialist SITA claims 24 million items of baggage are lost in transit each year. Location-aware RFID tags can help find them. Innovative ride and car sharing schemes also use tracking devices and RFID to assess billing time.

Of course, if you can track one object, you can track another. That’s why haulage, shipping and distribution businesses use the technologies to provide constant real-time access to consignment, stock and positioning information. Not only do you know where the truck is, but you also know what’s on it – and what the shelf life of the product is.

Back in the warehouses and factories, these technologies help packers and pickers navigate efficiently between consignments, boosting productivity, unlocking lost revenue and nurturing business growth. Factories claim employees spend up to one hour per day searching for tools, so that’s a great deal of value to unlock.

Location awareness enables industrial equipment to become more robust through predictive awareness, in which systems monitor themselves for faults and autonomously request maintenance as required. Location awareness means field service operatives can be summoned and quickly directed to faulty or potentially faulty equipment in order to effect repairs. Predictive maintenance schemes of this kind may deliver savings of up to 18%.

Finally, as inventory becomes data, stock, stock location and stock condition information becomes visible and predictable to inventory managers both on-site and remotely.

Emerging technologies improving accuracy

There’s a new wave of technologies that will spark further innovation in this space. 5G networks, Ultra Wideband (UWB), WiFi 6, augmented and virtual reality, machine intelligence systems – even voice assistants like Apple’s Siri and advanced LiDAR imaging solutions – mean the implementations (in both real and digital space) of such technologies become more profound.

Apple’s recent adoption of UWB is a case in point. Today, most radio frequency (RF) solutions for indoor tracking make use of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons and tags, but UWB may unlock more possibility. It’s a low-power wireless technology that transmits data across a wide bandwidth (from 500 MHz up to several gigahertz) with little interference and multiple advantages that make it useful in certain scenarios:

  • It transmits data at 8 megabits per second, four times faster than Bluetooth
  • It can transfer data up to 10 meters
  • The signal passes through walls more reliably than Bluetooth or Wi-Fi
  • Location data is accurate to up to 10 centimeters (Bluetooth is 1 meter)
  • The signal is more secure and directionally aware, so it’s harder to hack

UWB advocate Brian Roemmele suggests UWB will be transformative. Industry analysts are considering its use to provide location awareness in semi-autonomous vehicles, low-power and highly-secure home and office networking and location-sensitive data sharing.

The PAN technology works best with mobile, and emerging mobile solutions mean that local location awareness can be used at scale – great for IoT deployments. Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) wireless, such as LoRa, enables highly-secure, low-bandwidth, low-power implementations to connect deeply-isolated yet essential industrial systems – air quality monitors, for example. Such LPWA networks are expected to become a $23 billion industry in 2020.

These and other emerging technologies will underpin future location-based service delivery, and each evolution unleashes new industries and use cases as adoption of such services reaches critical mass. A recent study commissioned by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) suggests the staggering rapidity of this proliferation. The report reveals ten key industries (agriculture, electricity, finance, location-based services, mining, maritime, oil and gas, surveying, telecommunications and telematics) that have generated $1.4 trillion in the 36 years since GPS was made available for private-sector use. What’s telling about this data is that 90% of this revenue was created in just nine years since 2010, as usage and deployment opportunities expand.

Walter G. Copan, Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST Director, said in a press release: “When GPS was made available for civilian use, no one could have imagined how much our economy and daily lives would come to depend on it.”

Asset tracking is a perennial challenge for manufacturers: they want to keep track of their assets, tools, containers and boxes but don’t want to waste valuable time and resources searching for them. The latest digital technologies can help and provide supplementary benefits, too, on top of being able to pinpoint your tools, assets, people and vehicles on a map. Find out how Orange Business Services can help you choose the right indoor tracking solutions for your Industrial IoT projects.

Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.