Bluetooth Beacon

Bluetooth beacons are small devices with singular attributes that enable them to be used effectively in many business and industrial situations. We will discuss the details of what constitutes a Bluetooth beacon, how they work, and how they can be incorporated into Internet of Things (IoT) implementations that require proximity measurement, low-power sensing, or indoor navigation. We’ll also look at some of the industries that are making use of both stationary Bluetooth beacons and mobile Bluetooth tags.

What is a Bluetooth beacon?

A Bluetooth Beacon is a small radio transmitter that is typically battery- powered. It is used to mark a location, designate a point of interest, or transmit sensor data to a Bluetooth-enabled application, usually running on a mobile device. The beacon transmits a minimal amount of data in the form of an ID that is processed by the receiver. Based on calculations that indicate the receiver’s location and the information sent by the beacon, an action may be initiated or performed by the device.

Bluetooth beacons are available in a wide variety of form factors that lend themselves to different applications and use cases. Bluetooth beacon is the term used to designate stationary devices that are used for purposes such as facilitating indoor navigation. Bluetooth transmitters that can be attached to or embedded in a moveable object like a supply chain component are called Bluetooth tags. We will primarily be talking about Bluetooth beacons but will touch on the use cases for tags as well.

What is a Bluetooth beacon?
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A brief history of
Bluetooth beacons

The history of Bluetooth beacons begins in 1989 with the creation of Bluetooth technology by Dr. Nils Rydebeck and Dr. Johan Ullman of Ericsson who developed a technology that was initially called MC Link, this along with contributions from engineers at Nokia, IBM, Intel and Toshiba ultimately became Bluetooth. The Bluetooth Low Energy protocol was introduced in 2010. The one-way broadcast communication mechanism that it provided to enable Bluetooth devices to be discovered by each other (Bluetooth advertising packets) enabled the creation of Bluetooth beacon devices. Beacon technology was given a huge boost in visibility and popularity by the release of Apple’s iBeacon protocol in 2013 which allowed mobile apps to receive and respond to signals from beacons. The deployment of Bluetooth beacons, manufactured by Qualcomm’s Gimbal team, using the iBeacon protocol, in all of Apple’s US stores inspired other retailers to adopt the technology. Apple was generally regarded as one of the world’s leading brick and mortar retailers and had the highest dollar per square foot revenue of any retailer at the time. They used iBeacon as a way of triggering the “store mode” of the Apple Store shopping app.

By 2014, more than half of the top 100 retailers in the U.S. had implemented Bluetooth beacon technology for data gathering and proximity advertising. Today, Bluetooth beacons are widely used to create an enhanced customer experience through proximity marketing that delivers special offers to the mobile devices of shoppers running dedicated Bluetooth applications.

Beacons are also used extensively for indoor positioning and navigation. This application of the technology deploys a network of beacons mounted within a building that communicates with a mobile app to guide an individual or offer information about their current location.

How Bluetooth beacons work

Bluetooth beacons transmit data providing real-time information at regular intervals. Devices and apps running on them use this data for a wide variety of purposes that includes initiating an action or activity. A Bluetooth beacon typically only sends data and is not a receiver.

A Bluetooth Low Energy beacon employs Bluetooth Low Energy technology that is similar to Classic Bluetooth. Both communication technologies support short-range wireless radio transmission in the unlicensed 2.4 GHz ISM bandwidth. Bluetooth Low Energy has distinctive features that make it an effective choice for use in beacons.

As its name implies, Bluetooth Low Energy operates efficiently with minimal power consumption. Energy is saved by a more power efficient protocol with lower data throughput than Classic Bluetooth and beacons using the protocol can afford to be in sleep mode for longer periods. They don’t need to be awake listening for new connections as they spend the vast majority of the time they are awake broadcasting for very short periods. The device wakes up periodically to transmit data. The extended battery life enables beacons to be used in many scenarios not possible with Classic Bluetooth.

Bluetooth Low Energy beacons can be deployed for extended periods without maintenance. Another attractive feature is the ability to communicate with an unlimited number of receivers. Simultaneous communication with multiple receivers facilitates the use of beacons for indoor marketing and positioning applications.

Bluetooth Low Energy beacons communicate by transmitting an identifier that is translated by an application on the receiving device. Additional information may be gathered by the receiver including the power level or angle of arrival (AoA) that can be used for sensing or to determine location. AoA enables a much greater degree of location accuracy as the reader uses the angle information to triangulate to sub- meter levels of precision.

A beacon transmits the same identifier to all receivers. The application on the receiving device decides what, if any, actions should be taken. This communication enables actionable insights that initiate specific activities. For example, patient data can immediately be displayed on a healthcare worker’s tablet when they enter the individual’s hospital room.

Bluetooth beacon protocols

Multiple protocols are used to implement the communication capabilities of Bluetooth Low Energy beacons.

  • iBeacon was released by Apple in 2013 to enable communication between beacons and mobile devices. The iBeacon protocol supports the transmission of a single three- part identifier (UUID, Major and Minor device numbers).
  • Eddystone is an open source and cross-device protocol introduced by Google in 2015. The protocol supports four different packet types.
  • AltBeacon was launched by Radius Networks in 2014. It is an open source protocol that is compatible with a wide range of beacon applications.

The three protocols employ Bluetooth Low Energy technology and use channels 37, 38, and 39 to avoid impacting WiFi traffic.

Other proprietary formats exist but they tend to be layered on to these popular protocols.

Bluetooth beacon range and accuracy

The range of Bluetooth Low Energy beacons is dependent on the specific beacon, the chipset used, the antenna, and its intended use. While the theoretical range is about 100m, the typical transmission range is 30m with no obstructions. Battery consumption increases with the beacon’s range.

The received signal strength indicator (RSSI) can be used on the reading device to detect broadcasts and different ranges. Devices using Apple iBeacon protocol use three ranges that allow actions to be taken by the receiving devices and the applications that are called.

  • Far initiates an activity as soon as the device is in range of the furthest reach or the weakest signal from the beacon.
  • Near performs an action as the receiver moves closer to the beacon.
  • Immediate actions are initiated when the receiver is extremely close to or touching the beacon.

The accuracy of Bluetooth beacons when measuring distance from the reader is at closer ranges such as 1.5 meters. The further the reader is from the beacon the harder it is for the reader to understand the distance from the beacon. More precise location information can be obtained by receivers using angle-of-arrival (AoA) and trilateration.

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Applications of
Bluetooth beacons

Bluetooth beacons are used for a wide variety of positioning, location, and proximity marketing applications. The following are some examples of stationary Bluetooth beacons in action.

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Indoor navigation

Navigation in large, interior spaces is enabled through the use of a network of Bluetooth beacons. This service can be implemented for human use in settings such as an airport, a shopping mall, or a hospital. It can also be used for autonomous devices like robots maneuvering in an industrial setting. Googles’ Waze app uses beacons to understand the location of phones when traveling through road tunnels.

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Proximity detection

Using the far, near, or immediate ranges allows Bluetooth beacons to transmit specific information based on the proximity of receiving devices. Retail establishments use proximity detection to deliver targeted advertising and promotions. When deployed in a setting like a museum, beacons can communicate with a receiving app to provide informative details regarding an exhibit or display.

Mobile Bluetooth devices, also known as Bluetooth tags, can be attached to or embedded in items and increase the ways that beacon technology can be used in a wide variety of industries as demonstrated in the following examples.

Consumer packaged goods (CPG) and grocery items can be traced for a better understanding of their movement and condition. This enables suppliers to ensure the freshness of delivered goods, reduce waste, and leads to more satisfied consumers.

Apparel and soft goods can make use of Bluetooth tags to improve consumers’ in-store experience, optimize inventory, evaluate customer behavior, and reduce theft.

The pharmaceutical and healthcare industries use Bluetooth tags to maintain the visibility of equipment and supplies. The sensing capabilities of the tags can help deliver quality care and maintain regulatory compliance.

Reusable transport packaging (RTP) is widely used in commercial supply chains. Shipping crates and pallets can continuously communicate their status for increased inventory precision, freshness monitoring, and waste reduction.

The use of Bluetooth tags in these industries provides multiple benefits that include:

  • Improving the customer experience and promoting customer engagement
  • Increasing efficiency and reducing waste
  • Enhancing safety by providing indoor navigation in unfamiliar settings
  • Promoting better health outcomes by ensuring equipment and medicine are readily available.

Implementing Bluetooth beacons

Implementing a Bluetooth beacon system involves several steps that vary according to how it will be used. Some implementations can benefit from the use of Bluetooth stickers such as Wiliot’s IoT Pixels. Stickers are Bluetooth tags that can be applied to or embedded in any type of item to facilitate tracking its movement and condition. When attaching the stickers to a stationary point of interest, such as an end-cap shelf in a retail store, they can act as a beacon or location reference point.

The following steps are involved in the implementation of a Bluetooth system.


Selecting the hardware


Choosing the software


Configuring & integrating the beacons

Determining the right type of Bluetooth beacons is dependent on how they will be used. Stationary beacons are an appropriate choice for indoor navigation and proximity marketing. Bluetooth tags are the right choice for tracking and monitoring the real-time location and condition of goods and assets.

Bluetooth beacons do not provide much utility by themselves. They need to interact with software that translates their signals into actionable insights that may initiate an activity. Applications on phones are often used for indoor navigation. Cloud-based software provides the flexibility required to enable communication between beacons and users’ mobile devices or to a centralized engine from which organizations can process the information transmitted by the receiving applications.

Stationary Bluetooth beacon placement should be well thought out using a floor plan of the structure where they will be deployed. The goal is to use the minimum number of beacons without introducing any dead spots where transmission is not visible. After installing the beacons, trials should be conducted to ensure they are connecting to the mobile apps with which they communicate. If gaps are found in coverage, the beacons should be repositioned before performing further testing. Once satisfied with the communication capabilities of the beacon network, the information they send can be integrated into other systems through the mobile device’s receiving apps.

Detecting a Bluetooth beacon simply requires a Bluetooth enabled device running software designed to understand the data transmitted by the beacons. The ease with which communication is established is one of the reasons for the popularity of Bluetooth beacons in the usage scenarios previously discussed.

How much does a Bluetooth beacon cost?

Bluetooth beacons are inexpensive items that typically cost between $5 and $35 depending on the device’s battery life and features. Devices offering extended range and other advanced features may run as high as $50. Certain beacons, such as those provided by Wiliot can be purchased in volume for 10c to $1.50. The factors that influence the price of a beacon include its power, durability and form factors. Before committing to a specific beacon, you should have a good idea of where and how it will be used. Your intended use may determine whether you opt for stationary beacons or mobile tags, and the durability required of the devices.

Something to consider when purchasing beacons are discounts offered for bulk purchases or promotional packages that include access to software to facilitate the deployment and use of the devices.

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Bluetooth beacon
security and privacy

Security and privacy can be issues of concern regarding Bluetooth beacon systems and the information they can gather and store. As with all technological solutions, there is the potential for misuse of the devices that can result in problems surrounding security and privacy.

Unauthorized access to data

Attackers can spoof or hijack a Bluetooth beacon and use it to deliver alternate IDs that affect the receiving application and may result in it suggesting unintended actions or activities. While such exploits have received coverage in the press, actual incidents have been rare.

Location tracking

Malicious use of location tracking can be performed with Bluetooth beacons for purposes such as user profiling. The danger is in a malicious actor accessing a user’s mobile device or compromising the data it is communicating to the cloud. While beacons themselves can’t track users, the apps that use them can, so using applications from a reputable source is key.

Interference with other
Bluetooth devices

In settings where a large number of Bluetooth devices are transmitting data, there can be interference as signals collide and information is lost. This can affect the performance and accuracy of the beacon system. Typically Bluetooth beacons don’t generate interference because they broadcast for short periods of time, but if the shared advertising channels become saturated by other devices then application performance can become degraded.

Minimizing these security concerns can be done by implementing the following best practices.

  • Data encryption should be implemented to ensure that information transmitted by the beacon and the receiving app are protected. The receiving application may be in communication with cloud resources and all data flows should be protected by encryption.
  • Data collection should be limited to the minimum amount required to implement the functionality of the beacon system. There is no reason to collect personal information from a mobile device when simply offering information regarding indoor navigation or positioning. Companies deploying Bluetooth beacon systems need to be cognizant of the privacy of the individuals with which they are interacting. Operating systems and app stores typically require disclosure when beacons are being used.

Future of Bluetooth beacons

The potential uses of Bluetooth beacons will continue to grow as the technology matures and devices are introduced that provide extended range and accuracy. The following are some examples of the innovative ways Bluetooth beacons can be used to improve commerce, industry, and society.

  • Beacons with extended range and increased accuracy will allow location and navigation services to be offered in more diverse settings. Personalized experiences can be crafted for visitors to museums, amusement parks, and other tourist sites through dedicated applications offered to individuals by the venues. Navigation for visually impaired users is a popular use case for beacons. Better indoor position accuracy can be used to increase the precision of location information provided to emergency services when calls for help are received, sending ambulances to the exact office or hotel room where someone is in distress.
  • Travel can be enhanced with Bluetooth beacons as evidenced by the use of the devices in tunnels to eliminate the dead spots that plague users’ GPS navigation apps. The use of beacons promotes safety and improves traffic flow.
  • Augmented reality is the convergence of the surrounding environment with layered virtual objects. Bluetooth beacons can be used to communicate with a user participating in augmented reality to provide a more immersive experience.
  • Physical web or living web - Beacons that broadcast web addresses can be used to enable a browser experience that allows places and things to be browsed from the phone. Google pioneered the Eddystone Physical Web protocol that enabled this with some early success. After some internal machinations they withdrew the feature, but it is likely this will reappear in the future enabling the creation of digital experiences that are mapped onto the physical world without the need to develop apps. Restaurants, museums, stores will become browsable, unlocking interactive features, information about context, provenance, carbon footprint and authenticity.
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Bluetooth beacons are an affordable and flexible solution that lend themselves to a wide variety of location and tracking usage scenarios. They employ Bluetooth Low Energy technology to minimize energy use and maintenance requirements. Bluetooth beacons can be deployed as stationary devices to facilitate indoor navigation and proximity marketing. They can also be implemented as mobile tags which can be used to track the location and condition of goods and assets.

The future holds promise for more extensive use of Bluetooth beacons in commercial, residential, and industrial settings. By providing access to context-aware services and initiating relevant actions, the use of Bluetooth beacons will continue to flourish to foster communication with human and autonomous mechanical devices.

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Frequently asked questions


What is a Bluetooth beacon?

A Bluetooth beacon is a small wireless device that uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology to broadcast a signal, which is received by nearby Bluetooth-enabled devices. They are often used for proximity-based marketing or location-based services, asset tracking, and indoor navigation. Bluetooth beacons have a long life and can be easily used with a smartphone app or specialized software.

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What is a Bluetooth beacon used for?

A Bluetooth beacon is used for various applications such as proximity-based marketing, location-based services, asset tracking, and indoor navigation. It offers a cost-effective way to enhance customer experiences, streamline operations, and improve efficiency in a range of industries.

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How much does a Bluetooth beacon cost?

The cost of a Bluetooth beacon varies depending on several factors, such as the manufacturer, the model, and the features it offers. On average, a conventional Bluetooth beacon can cost anywhere between $10 to $30. However, more advanced beacons with additional features like longer battery life, programmable buttons, and extended range, can cost up to $50 or more per device. With lower cost technologies that are part of the move to ambient IoT costs may come down to less than 10 cents for large volumes in 2024. The cost of deploying a Bluetooth beacon network depends on the number of beacons required and the complexity of the installation. Nonetheless, Bluetooth beacons are generally considered a cost-effective solution for businesses looking to improve customer engagement and streamline their operations.


Can a phone be used as a Bluetooth beacon?

Yes, a phone can be used as a Bluetooth beacon with the help of specific software and settings, but the functionality and range may not be as reliable as a dedicated Bluetooth beacon device. Using a dedicated Bluetooth beacon device is recommended for businesses that require a more robust and reliable beacon network.

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Are Bluetooth beacons safe?

Bluetooth beacons are considered safe since they use low-energy Bluetooth technology, which poses no significant health risks. However, they can be used by applications to collect and transmit data, which could potentially compromise user privacy, and are also vulnerable in rare circumstances to hacking and unauthorized access. Businesses using Bluetooth beacons should comply with relevant privacy laws and regulations, secure their beacon network, and collect and use user data in a transparent and secure manner.


What is the difference between Bluetooth and a beacon?

Bluetooth is a wireless communication standard that enables devices to communicate with each other over short distances. The protocol includes an element that is used for the discovery of one Bluetooth device by another, this advertisement packet is described as “a beacon”. This can be confused with the physical Bluetooth beacon devices that use that protocol element to deliver their functionality. A beacon device uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology to broadcast a beacon signal that can be received by nearby Bluetooth-enabled devices. Bluetooth can be used for various purposes beyond beacons, while beacons are designed specifically for proximity-based communication and location-based services.

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How do beacons work?

Beacons work by broadcasting a signal using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology, which is received by nearby Bluetooth-enabled devices like smartphones or tablets. Each beacon has a unique identifier that helps devices differentiate between multiple beacons in a location, and when a device comes within range of a beacon, it can determine its proximity to the beacon based on the signal strength. Beacons can transmit other data using protocols such as iBeacon, Eddystone, or Wiliot’s Ephemeral ID protocol, which can be used by apps to trigger specific actions or provide context-aware services.

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