How do you locate an asset where GPS signals are blocked or undependable?

The answer, recently tested on the 5G testbed hosted at Communitech’s Waterloo Data Hub, is an easy-to-deploy sensor that builds its own mesh network.

The company developing the sensor is southern-Ontario-based AssetFlo, which recently completed six months of testing through ENCQOR 5G (the Evolution of Networked Services through a Corridor in Quebec and Ontario for Research and Innovation). ENCQOR 5G and OCI (the Ontario Centre for Innovation) offer $50,000 in support to firms that can match that amount and apply with a plan to develop software or hardware using the much-anticipated 5G network. 

For Elie Makhoul, CEO of AssetFlo, it was the ultimate test of the AssetTag-5G sensor and its software

Elie Makhoul AssetFlo.jpg

Elie Makhoul, CEO of AssetFlo

Makhoul created AssetFlo in 2019 to solve a problem: triangulating asset location in real time anywhere. While transport vehicles or assets are easily tracked by GPS while outdoors, tracking them in warehouses, parking garages and other shielded facilities is a greater challenge.

As more companies embrace the connectivity  of the Internet of Things, they are seeking location solutions to increase visibility and expand automation, Makhoul says. But Makhoul says many of the existing tracking systems are limited to either outdoors with GPS coverage or indoors with local wireless infrastructure, and are highly unreliable if an asset goes from outside to inside, or vice versa. These days, business operators can’t allow these gaps in visibility because it leads to unreliable data for critical business operations or to generate billings.

Like a cellphone, the AssetFlo sensor seeks signals automatically, switching networks for localization, such as Bluetooth, cell towers or GPS. The sensor connects wherever there is a signal, delivering “shelf level accuracy” on any shipment without having to create a separate infrastructure. The ENCQOR 5G testbed gave Makhoul the opportunity to test the sensor technology under heavy load conditions.

“If you have lots of traffic, you need a fast hub. To build a mesh network, you need the bandwidth. You also need the low latency for reliable and real time, and ad hoc mesh,” Makhoul said. The AssetFlo sensor needs to compute by the millisecond to complete its mesh network. 

Makhoul first tested the device at the 5G testbed in Toronto, but was invited by Communitech to come to Waterloo. “That was great. We could go outside, drive around, go to parking lots and watch the multiple devices finding each other.”

The next step, says Makhoul, is using the Communitech Data Hub’s AI experience to help drive the sensor’s algorithm.

The second advantage about working out of the Data Hub was Communitech’s many partnerships, and one of those partners became AssetFlo’s first customer.

“One of the partners is a U.S. company that works with cellular location. COVID hit at the time, and they said that a mesh network that provides accurate locations could be used as a monitoring device for social distancing.”

AssetFlo licensed the software to Texas location technology firm Polte, for an employee lanyard that buzzes when someone is too close to another lanyard-wearing worker, or is in an enclosed space with other workers too long. Makhoul says that while AssetFlo wants to produce and market its own sensor, licensing its platform could be an alternate revenue stream.

Mauro Rossi, Director of Advanced Technology Platforms at Communitech, says AssetFlo’s positive test bed experience is typical for the ENCQOR 5G program.

“Startups can do things on this test bed that they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise in a typical commercial 5G network owned by a private mobility service provider,” Rossi says. There are private 5G test beds, but the operators are large providers who may not have the ability to effectively deal with startups. The ENCQOR 5G testbed is free to use for any qualified company. 

So, where next for AssetFlo? 

Aside from working with Communitech to use AI to drive improvements to the sensor, Makhoul is interested in opportunities in the autonomous vehicle field: “I’m looking right now at AVIN (Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network — an OCI-backed project that has deep connections in the Communitech ecosystem). I’m looking to demonstrate the use case for underground parking. This is one of the biggest challenges of autonomous driving.”

Rossi is enthused about this potential for AssetFlo.

“They can now give visibility and localization information to autonomous vehicles in a GPS dark spot, a tunnel for instance,” said Rossi. “This tie-in to the autonomous vehicle sector is something interesting that I think AssetFlo brings to the table.”

Makhoul says startups interested in the potential for 5G should consider applying for the ENCQOR 5G program. Being engaged in the Waterloo testbed opens the doors to advice and guidance from the experts at Communitech. 

“It’s not just about the funding. The funding is always great, but it’s about building a network of support, of partnership. . . . Anyone in that ecosystem that aligned with your path, that could open the door through this program.”

And, “It’s not just marketing your company. You start building credibility. If you execute a valid project, these partners can look at you as a credible provider.”