Beacons + Software Development Kit + Application Program Interface + Cloud = Complete Platform, goes the BluZone Cloud Ecosystem formula. Are we nearing complete control over everything?
Imagine this scenario. You are at office or say, on a tour and want to guard a prized possession at home. If all you needed to do was place a beacon and a person-detecting sensor close to your treasure and you are notified every time anyone goes near it? Would that not be wonderful? When the alarm rings, you could simply trigger a set of previously-programmed actions. Consider another one – you want to find the location of your precious ring. It is somewhere in the house, but you don’t know where. If something could help you search indoors or in the racks and the rooms? Doesn’t this sound ideal?
We are almost there, maybe already, thanks to the beacon and a couple of other improved technologies! This article introduces you to the what-s and the how-s of beacon technology.
Starting from scratch: a beacon
A beacon is simply a hardware transmitter. It is an intentionally conspicuous device designed to attract attention to a specific location. Beacons are popularly used as a part of indicators at airports, weather monitoring stations and in the fields of navigation and defence.
Looking inside the beacon
A small computer, a module and a battery make the beacon. Software coded into the microcontroller unit (MCU) decides its behaviour, while the computing power and memory capacity are just about enough to handle its tasks. They earlier used sound as a medium of communication, but today the field has expanded to Bluetooth-based beacons. This article focuses on the Bluetooth-powered ones.
You can see a short wire sticking out of the beacon, which is actually one end of a transmitting antenna. The antenna is twisted in a zigzag shape, in an attempt to ensure that the transmitted data spreads evenly all around, in a circular fashion. The beacon broadcasts electromagnetic waves – radio waves in specific, at a frequency of 2.4GHz.
What the beacon actually does
The beacon transmits signals periodically – it blinks. Portable electronic devices in the vicinity capture this. These devices could be smartphones, tablets or other devices, which then perform a specific action. The information that the beacon sends out is just a universal unique identifier (UUID), a 128-bit value that contains the identity of the beacon.
The strength of this data transfer is directly related to the frequency of the blinks. This is simply because the receiving device works in the same fashion – it scans for UUIDs periodically. Increasing the frequency of transmission increases the number of data packets that the scanning device can receive, and thus reduces the chances of it not detecting the beacon. Also, as always, the closer the transmitter to the receiver, the stronger is the message.
The reaction of the receiving device
If the device is compatible with the message from the beacon, it either approximates its distance from the beacon or triggers a location-specific action on receiving a signal. Received signal strength indicator (RSSI) value is read by the device from the UUID. It then compares the measured power with the existing standard and arrives at a distance measure. But this is where the issues arise. Continuous scanning leads to draining of the device’s battery and measures are being taken to reduce this. Also, the distance approximation is not as simple as it looks, owing to noise parameters, deterioration in energy, missing signals and so on.
What happens once the data is received
The data received can be used to trigger a number of actions. The smart device is smartly programmed to execute a sequence. It could raise an alarm, send location details to the user, send details of commodities available at that location, send a map leading to the beacon or a map of the place, and so on. Alternatively, the device, on receiving the information, could send it to a cloud that redirects it to the user-connected device. Thus, you get a notification on your device and you can then decide the course of action. In simple terms, the beacon enables Internet of Things (IoT) applications.
The technology behind the communication
Bluetooth Smart, the new low-power, application-friendly version of Bluetooth, is the wireless technology used here. Its ability to communicate with existing Bluetooth devices has made it immediately adaptable in all fronts. Low energy is the most important advantage of this technology and just the battery accompanying the beacon is sufficient to power the operation.
Apple’s iBeacon, Google’s Eddystone are protocols that define the way beacons communicate. The brand new Eddystone is open source, while iBeacon is strictly for Apple users. They scrutinise the information received and analyse it to accurately arrive at a distance that can be trusted. iBeacon uses the proximity sensing action of Bluetooth to arrive at a range within which the beacon and the device lie – immediate(very close), near(within 1-3 metres), far(>10m) and unknown.
A point to be noted here is that the beacon is just a one-way transmitter. Plus, not all devices can understand the data transmitted by it – the device needs an app to be installed on it. The beacon might come in any form, like a universal serial bus (USB) device or even a coin, depending on the manufacturer and the protocol being used. Also, one device could be connected to a number of beacons and vice-versa.
Where can we see the beacon put to use
Companies like the Estimote, Blue Sense Network, Gimbal etc, are top manufacturers of the Bluetooth-based beacons and these find applications in mobile commerce, retail stores, festivals or events, monitoring services, exhibitions, for location based ‘check-in’ in social media and indoor positioning systems.
The new and the recent
The latest in this field is the release of Bluvision IoT sensor beacons in July, 2015. A collaborative effort by Texas Instruments (TI) and Bluvision, the new beacon supports both the iBeacon and Eddystone formats. It also supports an array of on-board sensor data that enables IoT deployments.
Bluvision is the first beacon technology company to support both beacon protocols. Calling their beacon as ‘BEEKS’, they have used the CC2640 to connect the BEEKS and sensors to each other and to the cloud, in IoT applications such as indoor navigation, micro-location-based services, asset tracking, inventory management, analytics and beyond, driving IoT into the mainstream.
Let us wait and watch what further benefits the Beacon-Bluetooth Smart-IoT combo has to offer to the rapidly growing field of electronics.
Priya Ravindran is a technology journalist at EFY, Bengaluru.