Extensive Guide to Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) Beacons
What are beacons and why should I care?
Beacons are devices that broadcast signals at a certain interval. In other words, Beacons allow applications to understand their location on a hyper-local scale and sends signals to users based on their specific geographic location. It’s kind of like GPS for indoors that powers all kinds of possible uses. These uses of beacons in the real world are extremely diverse and endless. They essentially bridge the online and offline world while gathering invaluable data. The results? A lot of possibilities.
Beacons and proximity are most commonly used for:
- indoor navigation
- asset tracking
- employee tracking
- keyless access
- proximity marketing
- data generation
- and more! (yay!)
What are Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) Beacons and why are they special?
BLE beacons are, as the name suggests, beacons that use Bluetooth Low Energy technology. Just how much of an impact does this have?
Cost: the technology enables 60-80% cheaper cost of operation than competing standards
Power Consumption: 50-99% less power used means the average beacon can last up to 2 years (or even 5 years with our beacons)
Application: BLE technology is perfect for beacons since applications only require minimal periodic transfers of data. As BLE can be found almost everywhere, beacons, too, can function…well, almost everywhere!
Eddystone and iBeacon, Which One is Better Suited for Me?
Let’s hold up a second. Before we go any further, I’ll provide a simple explanation of what Eddystone and iBeacon are:
Eddystone and iBeacon are communication protocols. As mentioned earlier, beacons send out a Bluetooth signals at certain intervals, and the communication protocols describe the format that makes up the signal.
iBeacon transmits a UUID, a Major, and a Minor value (16, 4 and 4 digits respectively).
One quick reminder: beacons do not do the tracking.
iBeacon requires an app to receive, process and/or track the beacon.
Works with iOS and Android, but native to iOS (works better with iOS).
Eddystone can send 3 different frame-types: Eddystone-UID, Eddystone-URL, or Eddystone-TLM.
- Eddystone-UID is essentially identical to that of the iBeacon.
- Eddystone-URL tells a smartphone or device to open an URL. Does not require developers app to be installed, only the latest Chrome application.
- Eddystone-TLM sends data from sensors, for example, tracking temperature so you can control the temperature in a warehouse.
Cross-platform, meaning it works well with not only iOS and Android, but any processor that supports Bluetooth beacons.
Powers Physical Web applications (learn more about that here)
Oh, god! What does all that mean?
Too many technical terms? Don’t worry. If none of that makes sense or is of interest to you, I will simply sum it up:
iBeacon is simple to implement, has more documentation, but less features.
BLE Beacon Use Cases
Let’s face it, hearing about beacon specifications can be a bit dry sometimes; you want to see some real world examples and how you can benefit as well. We’ll go through specific use cases in retail, events, tourism, and manufacturing.
Many people like to divide beacon use cases into two categories: the traditional and the new. It can be strange to imagine a technology like beacons, which is only a few years old, to have “traditional uses,” but these are all the verticals the general public know and love. Beacons started in retail and moved to events, museums, tourism. These use cases are all about helping a customer maneuver a space or engage with a company. It’s about facilitating communication.
However, 2017 is seeing a shift. New beacon technology is powering new use cases, namely asset tracking and RTLS. These are much less customer-obsessed and focus instead on data generation or tracking equipment around a space. It’s about illuminating processes to optimize a supply chain or movements around a space (like a warehouse or hospital). These new use cases are set to make up a huge percentage of beacon usage overall even if the average consumer never knows it.
Retail is probably one of the most mature and fastest growing industries that are using beacons today. Business Insider predicts that beacons will directly result in over $40 billion in US retail sales in 2016. Beacon technology is a great opportunity for retailers to see what items customers are most interested in and plan their store layout accordingly, heck they’re even on some coolers now.
We’ve seen beacons used by ELLE, Carrefour, and Volkswagen. Here are some ways you could use Bluetooth beacons in retail:
- Send customers offers and discounts while they walk by a product.
- Optimize the flow and service of a store by gaining data regarding time and day of the week vs number of people.
- Detailed information regarding things like parking or assistance.
- Make loyalty cards a thing of the past and connect and automate everything with a shopper’s phone.
Beacons power events internationally, and their use ranges from small meetups to large conferences and expos. We’ve seen beacons at everything from Mobile World Congress to football stadiums (so many football stadiums!).
Here’s a list of some uses, because people seem to love lists:
- More efficient networking, there are apps that indicate which LinkedIn contacts are nearby and which of them have shown interest in certain exhibition stands.
- With beacon-enabled alerts and updates, you can keep your attendees informed in real time.
- Driving attendee engagement: When attendees enter the venue and their smartphone will detect the beacon for that session and they will receive a prompt to “Join the Conversation” within the app.
- Helping concert goers find the best stage for their particular tastes
Proximity helps create an interactive environment in places like museums, completely revolutionizing how they guide, educate, and tell stories. Most importantly, beacon technology is often affordable enough that it won’t break the bank.
Here are some neat ways to use beacons in tourism:
- Ability to take self-guided tours.
- Receive maps, additional information on things like points of interest.
- Some venues implement beacons in the restrooms to show relevant information about future events or even advertisements.
- Gamify the exploration process and get visitors to collect points by visiting venues
Unlike all the above use cases, asset tracking or “RTLS” is not exactly made to drive sales or help users maneuver a venue (unless it helps optimize performance). Really, this is all about optimization instead of enhancing visitor experience. A lot of people get very confused when they hear the term “asset tracking,” but it’s actually a highly valuable, long-running tool in many industries. In fact, thought leaders expect the growth of Industrial IoT to really rely on beacon technology.
How can you use beacons in asset tracking? Here’s the basis:
- Follow assets moving through a warehouse
- Locate equipment in a hospital super fast
- Keep track of where employees are on case of emergency
- Collect data on how long processes take
- Track employee attendance for legal or security purposes
If you’ve read/skimmed this far, you must be interested. So what else should you consider before going into the proof of concept stage?
If you’re deploying a large amount of beacons, you must have the right set of tools and communication. There are things you absolutely must understand and some decisions you absolutely must make beforehand:
How are the beacons configured? How are they labeled for deployment? Are they continuously updated as the business purposes for the beacon changes? If you’re in need of some expert tips, feel free to check these out.
Fleet Management and Coverage
It seems a little unnecessary, but management will need to be considered during deployment. If you don’t understand how your fleet with function into the future, you’re probably going to get burned. One must routinely check on: missing/stolen beacons, the indicators regarding battery life, and categorization of the beacons.
The coverage or range of beacons vary largely depending on the environment. Fixtures, walls or even other signals may disrupt the coverage. It’s hard to estimate what the spread in beacons are, but we’d love to try.
Beacons are now emerging as a gateway to complicated financial interactions, so now there are incentives for someone to gain access to your beacons. The Eddystone communication protocol is already secure, but iBeacon is vulnerable to piggybacking, cloning, hijacking and cracking.
Lucky for our users, all our beacons have Kontakt.io Secure, worlds only suite that protects you against all the security threats.
Of course, just because your beacons are secure doesn’t mean you shouldn’t worry about understanding how it works. I highly recommend reading up on how beacons work and why security matters. Beacon hardware is incredibly simple. That’s why security is of the utmost importance.
Beacons Solution Provider Checklist
Alright, so now you’re thinking, ‘beacons are interesting, and I’d love to juggle the idea of a proof of concept.’ We got you. We’re excited for you too.
As a quick disclaimer: we don’t provide solutions, we just manufacture the beacons. We do love playing the match maker, we know the industry better than you, so just shoot us a message.
Here are some things you need to look for in a solution provider:
- Does the provider have a management tool that tracks where each beacon is as well as their current status (battery depletion or moved), with notifications?
- Pricing, how much does each beacon cost? They can cost anywhere for $20 to $150 per beacon (ours is on the lower spectrum).
- How are the beacons configured for your use?
- What is the turnaround time for installations (deployment)?
- Security, if they are not using Kontakt.io beacons, what kind of security measures are they taking?
Thanks for bearing with us throughout this article, we know it’s a bit wordy, but we were aiming to provide a complete introduction to Bluetooth Low Energy beacons.
Let us know what you think below, and once again (sorry), let us know if you have any questions.
Need more use case ideas? Inspiration? Just plain bored?
Check out the rest of our blog for everything you need to know about beacons. We love our blog. It’s our baby.
We know you’ll find more answers (whether it’s technical, ideological, or metaphysical) somewhere in its pages.