What is a beacon ? A Beginner’s Guide to Bluetooth Beacon technology.

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According to a study by Report Monitor, released in early 2020, by the end of 2025, the beacon market is expected to be worth US$33,700 million, with the number of devices deployed expected to triple each year. The “retail” sector alone represents more than 50% of the market, but in recent years, Bluetooth Low Energy technology has developed strongly in many sectors such as logistics, transport and industry. What is a beacon, what is its history, its technical operation and application cases etc., our guide will tell you everything you need to know about it.

What is a beacon?

To put it simply, a beacon is beacon belonging to the large family of connected things. A Bluetooth Beacon is a small and wireless a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) transmitter that, by using Bluetooth Low Energy proximity sensing, broadcast a universally unique identifier to nearby devices. This beacon, a few centimeters in diameter, will emit radio waves that can reach a range of several hundred meters and push information that will be picked up by devices with Bluetooth connectivity (Smartphones, computers, tablets, etc.).

Beacon’s origin : how did it start ? A little history lesson.

Apple was one of the pioneers in the beacons market, introducing in 2013 its iBeacon protocol dedicated to wireless beacon developers and manufacturers. Indeed, the iBeacon is not an object in itself, but a data frame format, allowing Bluetooth tags to communicate with Ios devices. The release of the first beacons was quickly followed by Radius Network’s Alt Beacon (an open source/open protocol) in 2014 and by Google with its Eddystone beacons released in 2015.

Today, there are more than 50 manufacturers of Bluetooth Low Energy tags and many suppliers of technical platforms to interface the tags with the thousands of mobile applications.

Why would you use a beacon?

So now that you know what are those little object, what is the purpose of beacon bluetooth ?

Beacon are great to integrate in various solutions. Wireless and easy to put in place, they allow you to transfer simple data to a plateform etc.They can improve efficiency or prevent risk like loss of equipment /product ; they are great little supervisor that can help you big time.

They can fit into 3 big categories : identify, locate and measure.

  • Identify : Secure people, equipment and inventory or building
  • Locate : Beacons can help indicate someone or something’s position, at any given time, allowing you to ensure security.
  • Measure : Beacon is useful either for the management of energy consumption or temperature monitoring, during the transport of heat-sensitive product for example.

Still don’t get it ? Let’s take a simple situation.
Just imagine, you woke up in the morning, got ready and were off to start your day at work. Everything was going fine, you took your shower, brushed your teeth, packed you bag, as usual. But, just as you were about to leave, you couldn’t find your keys. Oh no ! You had a very important meeting in the morning and because of this, you were going to run late… And now you were searching for you keys for about twenty minutes! If this had taken any longer, you’d have definitely been late for work.
Then, suddenly, you remembered you had the brillant idea of attaching a beacon to your key holder a few days ago. This bluetooth beacon, sending a signal every hour as you programmed it, was so small and inutrisive, you forgot it was there to begin with. You smirked, as you knew everything was going to be a piece of cake from that moment on. You took your phone, opened your app and located your key in a matter of second thanks to the bluetooth signal and high precision of the transmitter.
You found out were you put it last (it fell from your wallet while you were undressing last night…). You took it back and left your house, thinking : why didn’t i think about this sooner ?

Now that you get it, let’s get a little bit more technical.

How do a bluetooth beacon work?

What are beacons made of?

Now that you know what is this beacon technology, let’s try to understand how it works.
To do so, it is important to know what this connected thing is made of. Inside a beacon you will find:

  • a battery ;
  • a microcontroller ;
  • an antenna ;
  • a radio module ;
  • sensors ;
  • and finally a UUID (Universal Unique Identifier) to identify it.

How about design. What do they look like?

It exist a lot of different beacon manufacturers and they came in a lot of shape and color. Choosing which one to use depends on why you want to use, for how long you want to use it or even for which environnement.

There are the standard beacon, small beacon, usb beacon, special and video beacon. Here are the main characteristics usually associated to beacons :

  • They are usually small and compact
  • Rugged
  • Some are equipped with a led
  • Waterproof
  • etc.

Some of them are equipped with external probe for better measurement of temperature for example.

Their battery of life depend on the manufacturer. Their battery life can range between 1 month or several years depending on which one you use and how you use it. Just like the Bluetooth on your smartphone, the more it is activated, the quicker your battery dies. What’s great about the BLE beacon is that since it use low energy, the battery consumption is way lower than the regular one.

Want to find a good balance between battery consumption and the use of beacon ? Contact one of our expert to know more about that topic.

What infrastructure needs to be put in place?

How to use a beacon ? What should you put in place ?

If you wish to set up a remote identification solution using Bluetooth LE technology, you will need to wireless beacons, a Bluetooth receiver (smartphone, tablets, PC or even dongle, called “devices” in the lingo) and a software/application, allowing you to send data back to your server. Unlike active RFID tags, BLE technology benefits from a large number of compatible devices already installed.

Nowaday many smartphones, laptops, and embedded computers are Bluetooth-enabled. By downloading a mobile application on an store, or software, you can have access to the information emitted by the tag. Whereas in RFID, you should have had the tag and the receiver from the same manufacturer and often its associated software. Since the Bluetooth protocol is non-proprietary, it allows more freedom and flexibility in the choice of infrastructure.

What data does the beacon send?

Contrary to what one might think, a beacon does not send a notification, nor an image. Indeed, the type of data transmitted by the beacons will vary from one frame format to another. Many tag manufacturers offer their own frame format, but let’s take the example of the iBeacon and Eddystone formats, which are the two best known formats on the market today.

For Apple’s iBeacon, the tag is capable of transmitting 3 pieces of information: a reference number (UUID with a length of 16 bytes), and two identification numbers (Major, Minor) that will allow it to be differentiated from all the other tags present around it. The use of this format is often event-driven. It is the application with which the beacon is interfaced that will be in charge of triggering the events.

When the application will be in the beacon field, it will trigger 2 events:

  • Wake the application up.
  • Allow the application to decide what it should do, such as sending a push notification or triggering an alert.

The Eddystone, on the other hand, can transmit different types of packets: the Eddystone-UID, which like the iBeacon, emits an identifier composed of two static IDs (NID & BID) and the Eddystone – URL, which can store a compressed URL. Other elements such as maintenance information can be sent through their API (Google Proximity Beacon API’s endpoint diagnostics).

What uses for industry?

As mentioned in the introduction, beacons were first used in the “retail” field to attract customers at the point of sale by sending them promotional offers. However, for a few years now, this type of connected device has been developing in industrial sectors. Indeed, in the context of the digitization of industry leading to what is called “Industry 4.0”, the automation of certain tasks, the predictive analysis of data or the management of production operations are major issues for industrial companies looking tothe optimization of their performance. We will see 3 examples of the use of Bluetooth tags, but there are many of them. If you would like to know more, you can visit the Bluetooth GIS website.

Automatic identification

The identification of equipment can indeed be automated through the use of Bluetooth beacons. Let’s take the transportation sector as an example. Placing a beacon on the trailer of a truck will allow the driver toidentify the trailer during hooking and unhooking. In this way, it will make it possible to inventory the trailers and to know their utilization rate.

Tracking of aeronautical equipment

In order to meet increasingly demanding requirements in terms of safety, productivity and image, national and international airport operators are looking to better manage their fleet of non-motorized equipment known as NME, such as stepladders, tow bars or luggage carts. By equipping each equipment with a beacon combined with a GPS box compatible BLE embedded in towing vehicles, this will allow to locate and inventory the entire fleet.

Hands-free access control

Often associated with passive or active RFID technologies, people access control can also be done thanks to Low Energy Bluetooth tags. Proximity access control readers are replaced by beacons. The person wishing to access a site no longer needs an entry badge: his or her smartphone becomes the identification medium. When the user of this application presents himself in front of the secure access, his smartphone receives the information from the beacon and transmits the request to the access management application. The benefits are: detection at a high distance for hands-free access control and removal of the access badge.

Beacon technology, so what?

Beacons respond to many issues, regardless of the sector of activity. Indeed, the possibilities for interaction are infinite without making this wireless way of communication intrusive. In any case, the end user must at least have Bluetooth enabled on his mobile device and have downloaded the third party application that will be connected to the beacons. In the industry, this type of connected object allowing wireless identification has proven its worth and today allows to completely rethink the internal processes of companies.

In addition to low-energy Bluetooth identification beacons, some manufacturers also offer wireless sensors to addressSmart Building and Smart-Cities issues. We will come back to this subject in a future article.

mathieu ABET
ABET Mathieu
Software Engineer
Software development engineer at Ela innovation, Mathieu studied at the University of Montpellier 2 where he received his Master’s degree in Automated Systems. He quickly joined the corporate world as a software developer. Through various professional experiences, he dives into different fields such as semiconductor, medical or banking. Curious and passionate about technology, it was only natural that he became interested in connected objects and joined ELA innovation to work on the Bluetooth range.
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