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The Basics

Bluetooth Tag vs. Beacon

September 23, 2022
Bluetooth Tag vs. Beacon
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Bluetooth Tag vs. Beacon

Connectivity is a crucial part of IoT. When the devices in your network can communicate effectively, you know the location of every asset and that your operations are functioning as expected. This is where Bluetooth-enabled devices come into play.

Bluetooth tags and beacons are both used in real time location services (RTLS) — and while the two terms tend to be used interchangeably, the two are distinct and serve completely different purposes.

In this post, we’re going to look at the differences between a Bluetooth tag and a Bluetooth beacon — and how to use them both.

What is a Bluetooth beacon in IoT?

Conventional Bluetooth beacons are small, often fixed devices that transmit a simple ID signal that’s identifiable by a reader. The reader — which could be a smartphone or other compatible device — receives the signal and pulls the related data from the cloud. Bluetooth beacons vary in terms of size/form factor, sensing functionality and their role in a network..

You can think of the conventional Bluetooth beacon as a lighthouse. These hardware devices are fixed in position and transmit a constant signal that others can use to determine their location. The signal broadcast by a beacon will include the device ID, firmware version, battery level, and any other relevant information. Unlike a GPS device, it does not transmit location data. It is the job of the receiving device to calculate its own location based on its knowledge of where the beacon is and its relative distance from it as determined by the signal strength of the signal being received from the beacon by the receiver. As the beacon device is in a fixed position, beacons are not suitable for asset tracking.

Beacons use low-energy Bluetooth to communicate with other, nearby IoT devices. Each beacon contains a CPU, radio, and batteries. The signal is picked up by the other device and marks out the device’s location within the environment.

Beacons are great for use as an indoor navigation system or indoor positioning system (IPS). As the receiver communicates with the beacon, it can activate automated events. Fixed beacons are commonly used for public-facing purposes, such as geo-marketing, as they don’t track individuals or gather personal information without consent.

What is a Bluetooth tag in IoT?

Bluetooth tags (also known as Bluetooth tracker tags) are portable devices that can be used to track assets. They can be attached to assets and equipment, giving the owner the ability to track their belongings in real time.

Bluetooth tags can be used to help manage a business's inventory by keeping track of assets and stock. They also offer an added level of security to ensure the user’s assets are protected against loss and theft. This has been very beneficial for businesses transporting high-value goods.

Better still, Bluetooth tags can be attached to anything — even if the item has no IoT technology built into it. A common example of this would be adding a Bluetooth tag to your luggage when traveling. The tag broadcasts a simple ID number (in the same way as a beacon would) which is translated by software running in the cloud.

Bluetooth tags have become incredibly popular in recent years thanks to widespread accessibility. Consumer-facing tech companies such as Apple and Tile have made Bluetooth tags affordable and easy to set up. But it’s within commercial and/or industrial use cases that Bluetooth tags are delivering even greater value.

Bluetooth tags and Bluetooth beacons compared

The most obvious difference between tags and beacons is the mobility of each device.

  • Beacons are usually fixed in place to provide additional information or functionality relating to the beacon’s location

  • … whereas tags are fully portable devices that can be transported with the tagged asset to help track the asset’s location.

Another key difference is the way each device transmits its signal.

  • Beacons will send out a more rapid constant series of signals ready for a receiver to pick up when nearby.
  • Tags often transmit their signal intermittently and less frequently. They transmit less often to reduce power consumption, lower operating costs, and shrink formfactor.

In some cases, Bluetooth tags will transmit according to its state of motion, location, and command from a centralized system. An example of this is when tags are on rapidly moving assets like ice hockey players and pucks. In this case the tags broadcast very rapidly but often only broadcast when movement is detected. Wiliot’s IoT Pixels work differently since there is no battery and thus no need to preserve battery life. Learn more about our IoT Pixels here.

Examples of Bluetooth beacon and tag technology out in the wild

As IoT continues to expand at a tremendous rate, we are seeing more and more uses for Bluetooth beacons and tags in our day-to-day personal and professional lives.

Earlier, we touched on the security and tracking capabilities of the tag and beacon devices, but there are many more ways that businesses can use this technology.

Bluetooth beacons in retail

Bluetooth beacons offer an exciting prospect for retailers, reaching customers who have a Bluetooth-enabled device and compatible mobile application.

As the shopper passes a beacon, they can be presented with an in-app advertisement for relevant products. If a popular item is on sale, for example, the beacon can alert the shopper to the deal as they approach the aisle. Beacon-based marketing can also be used as an incentive for shoppers to download the store’s app — offering discounts on selected goods that can only be accessed when they pass the beacon.

For the retailer, these beacons also serve to build up real-time data on shopper habits. This can be used to identify hotspots in the store that tells the retailer which areas of the store have the most foot traffic for advertising and store planning purposes.

Bluetooth beacons for public transportation

Bluetooth beacons and sensors are already being used to track and reduce traffic congestion in cities like Tempe, Arizona, and Montreal. Smart cities are also using beacons to improve public transportation through real-time location tracking to help commuters see exactly where their bus, train, or cab is at any time.

Beacons are placed in road tunnels to allow apps such as Waze to provide an accurate view of where the driver is even when the phone cannot view the GPS satellites that would normally enable this.

The use of beacons to aid visually impared travelers as they navigate the travel system is a growing application.

Bluetooth tags in the supply chain

The supply chain is extremely strained right now — that’s true no matter what industry you operate in. Bluetooth tags reduce supply chain stress, especially when it comes to perishables like food, beverages, and medicines.

Tags increase traceability by offering continuous tracking of where products are, helping to improve product safety and aid recall efforts. They can also help fight against climate change by reducing waste.

Tags can be applied to primary packaging or the returnable transport items (RTIs) such as pallets and crates that are used to transport the items. Bluetooth tags are being used in high volumes by third party logistics companies (3PLs) as a value added service to providers such as FedEx to track packages in real time without the need for their staff to tap or scan the packages.

Learn more about Wiliot’s IoT Pixels for CPG and grocery and pharma today.

Related podcasts (with transcription) by Mister Beacon:

Episode #148 Co-creating the IoT with the Wiliot Starter Kit:
How to purchase an affordable starter kit with battery-free Bluetooth tags

Episode #123 Turning Products into Platforms using NFC:
Bluetooth tags being used for direct to consume (D2C) apps

Episode #154 Tag Converters in the IoT:
How to make Bluetooth tags in a low cost printable process