Which Type of RTLS Tracking Technology Is Best for Hospitals? Comparing RFID vs BLE and Other RTLS Technologies

July 28, 2022

Let's break down a few notable forms of healthcare RTLS.

Real-time location solutions (RTLS) technology is a vital part of any hospital’s infrastructure. Whether used for asset tracking, staff safety, environmental monitoring, or improving patient experience, ensuring your healthcare facility has the latest RTLS technology possible is essential for continued success. 

Effective RTLS will help your hospital in its journey to become a leader in the healthcare industry. As such, it is important for providers to consider which RTLS option is correct for their needs.

What type of RTLS tracking technology is best for your healthcare facility? Let's break down a few notable forms of healthcare RTLS, and help determine which form of RTLS technology is right for your healthcare facility.

prosight rtls technology comparison chart

Wi-Fi-Based RTLS Technology

Wi-Fi-based RTLS technology utilizes pre-existing wireless access points to track assets. While this option has a few benefits, there are certain drawbacks that make it less compatible for hospitals.

Benefits of Wi-Fi RTLS Technology

The primary benefit of a Wi-Fi-based system is that it uses a hospital’s pre-established infrastructure, eliminating the need for additional infrastructure costs. For hospitals with a tight budget, this ease of implementation can reduce installation costs.

Drawbacks of Wi-Fi RTLS Technology

Besides ease of implementation, Wi-Fi based RTLS has a few considerable impediments including:

Wi-Fi-based RTLS tags consume more power, resulting in a shorter battery life on tags or frequent recharging and increased maintenance costs. The on-going license costs to get data from Wi-Fi access points also start to add up over time. While hospitals may initially save money on installation, these long-term costs make Wi-Fi based RTLS expensive in the long-term.

These systems also depend on existing access points for location computations and have lower accuracy compared to other systems (zonal/floor or unit level accuracy). Wi-Fi based RTLS systems may be unable to meet clinical requirements of hospital staff needing to know if an asset is in a room or not.

Infrared RTLS Technology

Infrared, or IR, RTLS technology is powered by technology that is similar to a television remote. Within these systems, an infrared tag is placed on an asset, and flashes at different intervals so that the asset may be tracked through infrared readers placed throughout rooms and hallways (they are most commonly located on ceilings).

Benefits of IR RTLS Technology

A major benefit of IR is that it can be significantly more accurate than other RTLS technologies. Infrared sensors can track an asset's location within 2 meters, outclassing several similar systems. 

Drawbacks of IR RTLS Technology

Installation costs pose a massive downside to IR technology, as the system requires multiple units to be installed for effective results. Because of these installation costs, as well as additional density requirements and the fact it is a battery-powered solution, IR RTLS technology can be expensive to maintain.

Battery power may also hinder this technology’s usability. Due to the technology being slightly outdated, IR tends to drain battery life at a rate unmatched by other RTLS technologies.

Device accuracy may also be obstructed due to a tags’ line of sight being interrupted. Finally, IR RTLS usually requires another communication technology to work in tandem to translate the data, further lowering tag battery life.

In addition, due to its proprietary nature, IR based RTLS systems are very expensive to install and maintain.

Ultra-Wideband (UWB) RTLS Technology

Ultra-wideband is a radio-based form of RTLS technology that aims to provide short and stable tracking technology. This system provides unparalleled accuracy compared to other forms of RTLS technology currently available.

Benefits of UWB RTLS Technology

The leading benefit of UWB RTLS technology, by far, is location precision.

This system provides an impressive accuracy of asset tracking within 30 centimeters. UWB achieves this using small, low-power tags using various software based algorithms. 

Drawbacks of UWB RTLS Technology

The accuracy that UWB RTLS provides comes at a high cost — it is currently the most expensive of all RTLS technologies. A leading driver of this high cost is technology maintenance — requiring a robust network infrastructure as well as constant calibration to maintain accuracy. 

In addition to these drawbacks, UWB RTLS also results in a low battery life due to high power requirements, leading to additional maintenance time and costs. UWB based systems also require robust data backhaul requiring a dense PoE (power over Ethernet) network to each receiver throughout the hospital increasing the cost and complexity of installation.

Ultrasound RTLS Technology

Ultrasound identification is a RTLS technology that utilizes simple, inexpensive badges and tags to transmit and communicate locations using microphones.

Benefits of Ultrasound RTLS Technology

Systems leveraging ultrasound RTLS technology carry various benefits. On average, Ultrasound can track assets within 3-5 meters; some believe future advancements can narrow that radius to centimeters, a highly accurate tracking radius.

Ultrasound signal wavelengths also have a short reach, meaning that signals don’t need to travel lengthy distances. 

Drawbacks of Ultrasound RTLS Technology

Although not as expensive as UWB, Ultrasound RTLS is relatively expensive to install and maintain due to density requirements. Similarly, Ultrasound RTLS may experience limited battery life.

The line of sight of Ultrasound RTLS can also be limited where tags are covered, resulting in limited application in more crowded hospitals and generally reduced accuracy. Similarly to IR RTLS, Ultrasound RTLS also usually requires another communication technology to work in tandem to translate the data. 

RFID RTLS Technology

RFID is an RTLS technology that uses electromagnetic or radiofrequency devices to transmit data, utilizing two different types of tags — beacons and transponders. 

Benefits of RFID RTLS Technology

There are several advantages to RFID technology, starting with automation. RFID automatically and seamlessly collects data across a hospital network, reducing any need for human effort (and potential error). Alongside this, RFID can read multiple tags at the same time, doing so from a long distance.

Moreover, RFID tags are tough pieces of equipment, covered with plastic, making them reusable and durable.

Drawbacks of RFID RTLS Technology

RFID technology is the least accurate form of RTLS technology, sometimes only tracking within 30 meters. This wide range opens up the potential for inefficiency in operations, ultimately causing problems for hospital workers.

Like other previously mentioned types of RTLS technology, RFID also requires a secondary system to work in tandem to translate data. This both decreases ease of use and increases overall cost.

Finally, RFID technology requires comparatively larger readers in the ceiling, which are cumbersome to install and maintain. As a result, the cost of the technology increases.

Bluetooth Low Energy RTLS Technology

Bluetooth technology is common across all sorts of devices. In 2010, Bluetooth Low Energy — better known as BLE — was introduced with the release of Bluetooth 4.0, offering a form of Bluetooth technology that used much, much less energy.

Benefits of BLE RTLS Technology

There are countless benefits to utilizing BLE RTLS technology. On top of ease of use, it’s far and away the most diverse form of RTLS technology. BLE provides asset tracking advantages like geofencing, zonal coverage, choke point coverage, and maintenance management — among a variety of others.

The battery life of BLE is also the best on the market, with batteries lasting 5+ years. Compared to other forms of RTLS technology — some of which can only give you up to 90 days of battery life — BLE greatly outclasses the competition.

In addition to its diversity of use and stellar battery performance, BLE is also very accurate. BLE can track assets within 1-3 meters, which is comparable to almost all other forms of RTLS technology. Hospitals can maintain an understanding of their workflow and assets throughout various situations, not blocked by infrastructure or other physical obstacles.

Drawbacks of BLE RTLS Technology

When compared to IR or US based systems, BLE RTLS technology has lower accuracy. However, it still meets room-level accuracy standards, meaning this weakness is negligible within hospital settings.

Harness Bluetooth Low Energy RTLS Technology Using Cox Prosight

While each of these options has its advantages and disadvantages, in our opinion there is a superior option for RTLS technology in hospitals. Across almost every category, BLE provides the greatest value. BLE is not only the most affordable option of those listed above, but also offers the most efficient and effective form of RTLS technology on the market.

Cox Prosight leverages BLE technology to help create powerful RTLS systems for healthcare facilities. Learn how the Cox Prosight RTLS platform can help streamline and modernize operations in your hospital today.

Jaiganesh Balasubramanian
Director, Product and Technology

Jai is a product and technology executive with demonstrated history in building and growing several brands and businesses in the Smart building and Healthcare space. Jai joined Cox Prosight in 2020 and is responsible for developing and executing the company’s Smart Hospital strategy, including solution and partnership development, investments, acquisitions, and business growth. Prior to Cox, Jai led the development and management of IoT smart and connected building technologies with a specialty in building automation systems and location-based solutions and has a track record of achieving growth and penetration into new market segments. Jai holds an MBA from Cornell University and M.S. in Electrical Engineering from Northern Illinois University. Jai, his wife, and two children live in Atlanta, GA.