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The Basics

How Bluetooth Low Energy Beacons Can Help Your Business

January 31, 2023
How Bluetooth Low Energy Beacons Can Help Your Business
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This page is an entry in our extensive guide to Bluetooth Beacons.

How Bluetooth Low Energy Beacons Can Help Your Business

A Bluetooth(R) Low Energy (BLE) beacon is a small radio transmitter (often battery powered) that transmits data that is received by a compatible reader such as a smartphone or other Bluetooth-enabled device, which is usually mobile. The beacons are typically stationary and can be attached to, or embedded into, virtually anything immobile and have many uses in business and industry.

How Does a Bluetooth Low Energy Beacon Work?

A Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacon communicates with other devices via Bluetooth technology. The beacons can transmit data at regular intervals to provide real-time information that can be used for a wide variety of purposes by the receiving devices, and the applications running on them. Usually, a Bluetooth Low Energy beacon only sends information and does not receive data.

Bluetooth Low Energy technology is similar to Classic Bluetooth with some major differences. They are both short-range wireless communication technologies standardized by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) that operate in the unlicensed 2.4 GHz ISM bandwidth. Bluetooth Low Energy was made commercially available in 2011. The technology has features that make it an excellent choice for powering the beacons used for Internet of Things (IoT) implementations and facilitating diverse functions such as proximity detection and indoor navigation.

The main advantage of Bluetooth Low Energy is its ability to operate efficiently while exhibiting vastly reduced power consumption. One of the ways it accomplishes this feat is by putting the device into sleep mode most of the time. It periodically ‘wakes up’ to transmit--the time interval between transmission is usually only 100 milliseconds (a tenth of a second). This extends battery life, opening the door to many applications that would be impossible with Classic Bluetooth. Minimizing or in some cases eliminating the requirement for battery replacement allows Bluetooth Low Energy beacons to be used in scenarios where they can remain operational for an extended period of time without maintenance.

Another feature of Bluetooth Low Energy technology that makes it an attractive solution for enterprise use is its ability to communicate with an unlimited number of receiving devices. This enables any compatible device to interact with many beacons simultaneously.

Bluetooth Low Energy beacons communicate with Bluetooth Low Energy receivers by sending an identifier that is translated by an application on the receiving device. The receiving application may also use characteristics of the signal like power level, or angle of arrival (AoA) in its calculations for sensing or location determination. A beacon will consistently transmit the same identifier, leaving it up to the application to take different situation-based actions based upon its program. The communication between the beacon and application triggers actionable insights or initiates activities. These might include the mapping of movement of staff in stores to clean the heatmap data from cameras that might otherwise not distinguish between shoppers and staff in the store. Another example is the triggering of patient data being displayed on a doctor’s tablet when they enter a patient’s room in a hospital.

Enterprise Uses of Bluetooth Beacons

Bluetooth Low Energy beacons can be implemented in many settings to enhance the customer experience and increase efficiency. They are beneficial in providing an inexpensive mechanism for indoor navigation and proximity detection. Examples of this can include room occupancy analytics to track the location of staff in a business setting.

Proximity Detection

In many use cases, exact X/Y location is not required. Rather a notification that a phone (or other receiving device) is present or not-present. This sort of use case is frequently called proximity detection, and Bluetooth Low Energy beacons provide an excellent solution for these sorts of use cases. An example is when an alert is triggered when a shopper is near a certain display in a store, or near a billboard outside the store. Advertisers can use this capability to estimate “impressions” from prospects or customers traveling by displays or billboards or to trigger offers in a shopping app relevant to the department the shopper is in.

This can be set up and facilitated easily. No detailed site survey or mapping of a venue is required. All that is needed is a list of beacon IDs associated with a list of assets (a billboard, a display, or an endcap store display). The longitude and latitude (X/Y) is not required.

Indoor Navigation

Indoor navigation, which is also sometimes called wayfinding, can be accomplished through the use of Bluetooth beacons. Navigation via handheld smartphones and mobile devices in large interior spaces like airports, shopping malls, hospitals, or sports arenas is one example. Robots or other automated devices finding their way using built-in Bluetooth Low Energy readers is another.

In these examples, the Bluetooth Low Energy beacon is used to establish the mobile reader position relative to a map that uses beacons as Points of Interest (PoI) locations on the map. The reading device may use signals from multiple devices, that can be ‘heard’ at any given time, to triangulate or trilaterate to establish its location on the map. Trilateration is the process by which the relative proximity to three different beacons is used to establish an X/Y location.

Location can be estimated using a variety of techniques, the most common of which is the Received Signal Strength Indicator (RSSI) value. This “signal strength” is how loud the signal is when received. It’s measured in decibels (dB). If you receive a strong signal from a beacon by the door of a restaurant, your location is likely near that restaurant door. If you receive a weak signal from the beacon at the front of the restaurant, and a strong signal from a beacon known to be at the back of the restaurant, you are likely near the back of the restaurant. If you receive a strong signal from a beacon known to be near the kitchen, but a medium signal from the beacons located at the front and back of the restaurant, your position can also be estimated as near the center of the restaurant. In doing all this, staff can potentially locate the position of diners who have placed their orders by phone, speeding up service and increasing the satisfaction of everyone concerned.

Bluetooth beacons can also be used in retail stores to promote loyalty programs and enact marketing campaigns tailored to a customer’s current physical location. Retailers can offer customers a free smartphone app that communicates with beacons within the establishment.

An Innovative Technique for Designing Bluetooth Beacons

Wiliot’s IoT Pixels offer an innovative approach to designing the thinnest lowest cost Bluetooth Low Energy beacons for a large number of use cases related to proximity and indoor positioning or way finding. Wiliot Pixels work in conjunction with the Wiliot Cloud to decrypt the encrypted wireless Bluetooth Low Energy transmissions, and trigger actions (via the included Wiliot Cloud APIs) in external systems or other notification mechanisms.

Wiliot offers two types of IoT Pixels. Battery-free IoT Pixels are postage-stamp-sized compute devices that recycle the power from the radio waves that surround us to source power. This gives them effectively a limitless lifetime and enables them to be used in situations where battery replacement is inconvenient or impossible. Wiliot’s battery-powered IoT Pixels use an inexpensive printed battery that is small, thin, and environmentally friendly. The battery-powered Pixels are smaller than a business card and have a battery life of approximately 4 years.

Wiliot’s IoT Pixels and the Wiliot Cloud offer businesses an effective and cost-efficient method for solving a large number of different use cases. They offer enterprises a novel way of solving problems related to location, sensing, and inventory counting or location tracking in a highly automated and cost-efficient manner.