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.
A brief history of
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.Read more
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.Read more
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.Read more
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.Read more
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.Read more