What is a beacon? What are its use in the industry?

Published on 02 avr. 2020 In: Techno

  • Reading time05min.
  • LevelBeginner

You know the connected objects market. But do you know precisely what a beacon is? How does it work? What are their typical uses?

What is a beacon? What are its use in the industry?

According to a study made by Report Monitor, released on early 2020, between now and 2025, the beacons market should represent 33 700 million US dollars with a number of devices multiplied by 3 every year. The retail sector represents by itself more than a 50% of the market. But these last years, the Bluetooth Low Energy strongly developed in various sectors like logistics, transport and industry. In this article, we propose to familiarize yourself with these connected objects, frequently submitted to bias. The program of this article is: the history of beacons, operating mode and use cases.

What is a beacon?

A beacon is a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) emitter belonging to the big family of connected objects. Measuring few centimeters in diameter, it will emit radio waves reaching several hundreds of meters range and send information which will be received by devices with a Bluetooth connectivity (smartphones, computers, tablet, etc.).

One of the biggest advantages of this wireless communication protocol BLE is its low energy consumption, offering to the beacons an autonomy reaching up to 20 years. We will tell you about them in this article.


Apple was one of the precursors in the beacon market by releasing in 2013 its iBeacon offer dedicated to developers and wireless beacon manufacturers. Indeed, the iBeacon is not an object but a frame format allowing the Bluetooth beacons to communicate with iOS devices. The release of these first beacons was rapidly followed by the AltBeacon (an open source protocol) from Radius Network in 2014 and by Google and its Eddystone beacons released in 2015.

Today, there is more than 50 Bluetooth Low Energy beacon manufacturers and numerous technical platform providers allowing to interface beacons with thousands of mobile applications.

How does a beacon oparate?

What is a beacon composed of?

To understand the operating mode of a beacon, it is important to know what compose this connected object. Inside a beacon, you will find: a battery, a microcontroller, an antenna, a radio dongle, sensors and finally, an UUID (Universal Unique IDentifier) allowing to identify it.


What infrastructure do you have to install?

In practice, what is the necessary infrastructure to use beacons?

If you wish to implement a wireless identification solution using the Bluetooth LE technology, you will need wireless beacons, a Bluetooth receiver (smartphone, tablet, computer or a dongle) and a software/ app, allowing you to pass information on your server. Unlike active RFID beacons, the BLE technology benefits from an important number of compatible devices already installed.

Today a lot of smartphones, computers and on-board computers are Bluetooth compatible. By downloading a mobile app on a store, or a software, you can access information sent by the beacon. In comparison, with active RFID, you must possess the beacon and the receiver from the same manufacturer, and sometimes the associated software too. The Bluetooth protocol being non-proprietary, it allows for more freedom and flexibility regarding the infrastructure choice.


What data is sent by the beacon?

Contrary to belief, a beacon does not send notifications, nor images. In fact, the data type transmitted by the beacon will vary from a frame format to another. Various manufacturers propose their own frame format, but the most well known on the market until now are iBeacon and Eddystone.

For iBeacon from apple, the beacon emits 3 information: the reference number (UUID, 16 bytes long), and two identification numbers (major and minor) allowing to differentiate it amongst all surrounding beacons. The use of this format is often used to track and produce events. The app with which the beacon will be interfaced will trigger the events.

When the app will be used within the beacon range, it will trigger two events:

  • Awake the beacon
  • Allowing the app to decide what it should do, such as sending a push notification or trigger an alert.

As for Eddystone, it can transmit various packet types: the Eddystone-UID, which like for iBeacon, emit an identifier composed of two static ID (NID & BID) and the Eddystone-URL which allows to stock a compressed URL. Other elements like maintenance information can be sent thanks to their API (Google proximity Beacon API’s diagnostics endpoint).


What use cases in the industry?

As explained in the introduction, the beacons have been used first in the retail field to attract clients in selling points, for example by sending them a promotional offer. Nonetheless, since few years, this type of connected objects is developing in the industry. In fact, within the scope of the industry digitalization (what we call industry 4.0), the automation of certain tasks, the predictive analysis of data or good, the management of operations are crucial challenges for industrial companies looking to optimize their performance. We will detail three Bluetooth beacons use cases, but there are many others. If you wish to know more, you can visit the SIG Bluetooth website.


trailer automatic identification

Automatic identification

The equipment identification can indeed be automated thanks to Bluetooth beacons. In the transport for example, by placing a beacon on a truck trailer, the driver can identify the trailer during the coupling and uncoupling processes. Thus, we can make the inventory of the trailers and know their utilization rate.


 Asset tracking in airports

In order to tackle the increasing needs regarding security, productivity and image, national and international airport managers are willing to better track their non-motorized vehicle fleets called NME, such as stepladders, tow bars or luggage racks. By providing every equipment with a beacon combined with an embedded GPS tracker compatible Bluetooth inside towing vehicles, we can locate and do the whole stock inventory.


asset tracking ar airport

Hands-free access control

Often associated to passive and active RFID technologies, the people access control can also be done with BLE beacons. The access control readers are replaced with beacons. The person willing to access the site no longer needs an entry pass: its smartphone becomes the identification support. When this application user arrives next to the secured access, its smartphone receives the beacon information and transmit to the management application access request. The advantages are the very wide detection range allowing to establish a hands-free access control and the removal of the physical entry pass.


In conclusion...

the beacons answer various challenges, whatever the field. In fact, the interactions possibilities are infinite without turning the communication method into something invasive. The end user will need, in any case, at least the Bluetooth activated on his device and a third-party app to connect to the beacons. In the industry, this type of connected object allowing a wireless identification proved its worth and allows to rethink completely the internal processes within companies.

In addition to the Bluetooth Low Energy identifiers, some manufacturers also provide wireless sensors to answer to the issues of Smart building and Smart Cities. We will come back on this subject in another article.