So, what IS a beacon? Beacons are small and wireless high-tech devices, and we're excited to tell you all about them! Consider this your formal introduction to Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacon technology. Enjoy!
A Bluetooth beacon is a small wireless device that works based on Bluetooth Low Energy. It’s kind of like a lighthouse: it repeatedly transmits a constant signal that other devices can see. Instead of emitting visible light, though, it broadcasts a radio signal that is made up of a combination of letters and numbers transmitted on short, regular intervals. A Bluetooth-equipped device like a smartphone, gateway, or access point can “see” a beacon once its in range, much like sailors looking for a lighthouse to know where they are.
You’re going on a trip to some far-off country—nice! But you don’t speak the language—crap!
On the way to the hotel, you arrive at a big train station. The station is huge, and you have no idea where to go. How can you get directions that are reliable, clear, and in a language you understand?
Luckily, the train station owner planned for problems just like this. You see a sign indicating that the train station has an app. You download it. A beacon placed on the wall sends out a continuous signal, and, once you activate the app, you're able to make use out of it. The app takes the beacon ID and checks what information is paired with that particular beacon.
It recognizes that you are standing in front of the donut shop by Gate 14. You enter your destination, and the app generates a clear map to show you the way there. When you turn down the wrong path, it redirects you.
Since you have plenty of time, the app also lets you know that the coffee shop to your left has a special deal going on. The app tells you all the train schedules and delays for the station.
You catch your train on time and realize it's not so stressful after all.
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What do they look like? Beacons are very small, simple devices. If you crack one open, you won't find thirty motherboards and oodles of wires. You'll find a CPU, radio, and batteries. Beacons often use small lithium chip batteries (smaller and more powerful than AA batteries) or run via connected power like USB plugs. They come in different shapes and colors, may include accelerometers, temperature sensors, or unique add-ons but all of them have one thing in common—they transmit a signal.
It’s not throwing just any old message into the air. It’s transmitting a unique ID number that tells a listening device which beacon it's next to.
Really, it’s just a code name. How can I interact with beacons?
For example, when a shopping mall installs beacons in their shop, all of the beacons will have certain IDs, registered in their dedicated app. This means a smartphone app can immediately recognize that the incoming ID is important and that it’s from that particular mall. The ID, however, has little meaning on its own; it's entirely up to an app or other program to recognize what it means.
What happens next? That depends on what the owner has programmed it to do. One code could trigger the app to send a coupon. Another could offer navigation services. The possibilities are nearly endless. All the beacon has to do is connect your exact location to the app, and the rest is up to the program.
Although the terms are often mixed and used interchangeably, understanding whether you need beacons or tags is helpful when doing your product research or communicating your expectations during talks with vendors.
Here’s a simple distinction that we use at Kontakt.io:
Beacons are stationary. Tags are intended to be on the move.
Obviously, independent of whether it’s a beacon or a tag, a Bluetooth Low Energy device will work the same. This means you can technically buy a beacon product and, as long as it meets your requirements, use it as a tag or vice versa. The two terms are not used to describe two different technologies, but rather two applications of one technology. Stationary (beacon-based) and on-the-move (tag-based) deployments work a bit differently, so we believe distinguishing the names of devices helps avoid confusion when talking about different use cases.
If you want to stick your Bluetooth devices to walls or still objects, you’ll use beacons.
Traditional use cases for this setup are: occupancy monitoring, environmental monitoring, proximity notifications, indoor wayfinding, loyalty programs. Let's take indoor wayfinding as an example, in this case the receiver of the beacon signal will be usually the mobile phone of your customer. When in range of a beacon, it will pick up the signal and relay it to the application installed on it. The application will read the beacon data, see what action is assigned to this data, and perform the action. The action can be simple: showing a notification about the sales of the product the user is standing next to or displaying in-app content with a detailed description of a nearby-exhibit in a museum. But it can also be more complex, like calculating the user’s position based on his proximity to a couple of beacons in range and displaying his location as a blue dot on an interactive map.
If you want the devices to be carried by people or assets to monitor their movements, you’ll use tags.
When assets are on the move, the receiver must be still. So while in the previous scenario the receiver and the application could work on the same device, here, we’ll need an extra device. Usually, this device is a gateway or access point and its job is to relay the collected data to the cloud or local server. The application—for example an RTLS (Real-Time Location System)—takes the data and translates it into things like realtime maps showing employee locations, search & find tools for locating assets or people, productivity dashboards, temperature analytics, and other features it was designed to provide.
From these examples, you can clearly see that depending on the type of use case, you’ll need a different infrastructure and a different application. We’ll talk about other technical implications of different use cases in a moment but first, let’s clear up one more misconception
You’ve probably heard of Bluetooth. It’s present in 90% of all phones and has been around since the 1990s. So what’s changed? Why is it so important now? While many consumers don’t use Bluetooth on a daily basis, it’s hugely important to the Internet of Things. Being in 90% of the world’s phones, Bluetooth technology means beacons are compatible with devices consumers use on a daily basis around the globe.
Bluetooth provides the infrastructure for the entire beacon ecosystem. It’s a standard for sending data over short distances, a wireless technology not so dissimilar from WiFi. This is why beacon hardware can be simple. There is already a web of Bluetooth around you that can connect beacons and smart devices and almost anything else.
BLE stands for Bluetooth Low Energy. It's a power-efficient version of Bluetooth originally introduced in 2010. BLE's low energy needs are vital to beacons, as it allows them to run for years on tiny coin-cell batteries. It also consumes far less energy than the old and clunky Bluetooth. In fact, BLE is a major driver in the IoT, allowing technology to last longer with smaller parts.
The next question is, how do beacons actually enable connecting and transferring data?
Beacon hardware is relatively simple, but the way it triggers actions can get a little complicated. Every system is a little different, but here's how a beacon communicates, in a nutshell:
The beacon sends out its ID numbers about ten times every second (sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on its settings). A nearby Bluetooth-enabled device, like your phone, picks up that signal. When a dedicated app recognizes it, it links it to an action or piece of content stored in the cloud and displays it to the user. You can “teach” your app how to react to a beacon signal by developing using third-party tools.
Defining Technical Criteria
Now that you know what beacon hardware does and whether you need beacons or tags, you can start researching what hardware will be best for your project. You will quickly realize that the variety of Bluetooth-enabled products available on the market is huge and you’ll definitely have some questions like:
We’ll discuss the most common features and components that today’s beacons and tags have to offer. Some of them will be must-haves for your projects, some will be nice-to-haves, and some will be completely irrelevant. Defining the must-haves, the nice-to-haves and the redundant is crucial before you start selecting your hardware so you’ll know what to look for and won’t get distracted by features you don’t really need. This chapter will give you an overview of the available options so you know what to select from. We’ll look into typical requirements for various use cases so you’ll see how these technicalities translate into actual solutions.
What is a beacon packet? Do you need those? Here are some notes on beacon specs and details.
The form factor is naturally the easiest-to-catch differentiator but it’s about more than just what the device looks like.
Bluetooth devices come in different sizes and shapes: from small flat coins to palm sized pebbles to big boxes, cards, wristbands, and more. The form factor is driven by your use case and specific requirements of the environment the beacon will be used in (you’ll find out more about this in the next chapter). Usually, you have a clear idea of what form factor you need, so we won’t dive deeper into this Topic. Even if you’ve found your ideal form factor, your job isn’t done yet. There are still a couple of form factor-related questions you should ask.
This is a very important question. Even the most perfect form factor won’t suffice if it doesn’t allow for your desired application. Wearable tags aside, stationary beacons and asset tags have different features enabling different mounting methods: What will your devices be used for? Where will your devices be placed? What would be the optimal mounting method that will ensure that they will stay in their designated place?
If your devices are going to be exposed to conditions like shock, high or low temperature levels, or water, make sure the form factor is suitable for your deployment.
First, consider robustness.
The device casing should protect the inside from external factors, independent of the use case. But if your devices are going to be exposed to hits or falls, make sure they’re robust enough not to break or fall apart. Check what material the casing is made of, how thick it is, and how different components are put together.
Second, think about IP ratings. The most commonly used are IP5x or IP6x. The initial 5 means that the device is satisfactorily protected from dust, and 6 means that the device is completely dust-proof. The second digit (x) describes the protection from liquids:
0 - no protection
1 & 2 - the device doesn’t let water drops in
3 - the device is protected from spraying water
4 - the device is protected from splashing water
5 - the device can withstand water jets
6 - the device can withstand powerful water jets
7 - immersing the device at 1 m of depth in water won’t cause significant harm to it
8 - the device can withstand continuous immersion below 1m
Finally, check operating temperatures. While this parameter isn’t directly related to the form factor, it has an immense impact on the health of your device. If your tags or beacons are exposed to extreme temperatures, check if the device is capable of working in such conditions.
Some form factors allow for replacing batteries, some do not. This is one of the things that should be on your checklist. Keep in mind, though, that in some cases, having the option to replace batteries is just unfeasible. If your key requirement is that hardware is fully waterproof, you can’t expect it to also allow for battery replacements as the casing needs to be sealed. For IP 65 and less, the battery replacement option should be standard. Considering the expected battery life of the device, the price tag, and the cost of replacing batteries in your entire fleet, will it make more sense to replace the devices or just the batteries when they drain?
Finally, there’s the matter of taste in design. In the majority of deployments, whether the device is pretty or not is secondary if not completely meaningless but there are some consumer-facing environments like retail or hospitality where design matters. If your hardware fleet needs to follow certain branding guidelines, check with the vendor you’re researching whether they offer white labeling or custom printing or coloring (and at which volumes).
It’s obvious that the longer the battery life, the better. Some vendors share projected lifespans for their hardware, and you should definitely analyze them but there are a few things to bear in mind. First, let’s understand what affects the battery life. We can distinguish three categories of factors that impact how long a device will live: hardware-specific, configuration specific, and environment-specific. Hardware-specific factors depend on the vendor and the way they designed and developed the device. Battery lifetime is hugely driven by the number and capacity of batteries. The more batteries, the longer the life (and the bigger the device size). Everyone knows that. But what isn’t so obvious is another factor: the design of the hardware and the firmware it runs on. If you’re wondering why some devices have a longer lifespan than other products using similar components and the same batteries, that’s the secret sauce. Top hardware vendors design printed circuit boards and ondevice software for finest energy consumption. That’s why, when looking for your beacon provider, look not only at their tech specs but also for their reputation and track record.
In general, battery consumption is affected by two settings:
As a rule of thumb, the stronger the transmission power and/or the shorter the interval, the faster a device will consume the battery. This has very significant implications.
If the battery life is your key priority, give the interval and transmission power the lowest values your application allows for.
If you aim for a longer range, you can expect the forecasted battery life to shrink. You can try to compensate for this with a longer interval or accept that you won’t have a multi-year deployment.
If you’re working on a project that relies on real-time (down to the second) visibility, you’ll need short intervals. This is often the case in wayfinding, where you need to provide the user with her real-time location, or proximity-based content in fast-paced environments (like shopping malls) where the window for catching a passer-by’s phone is very short. In such deployments, you most probably won’t need a super-long broadcasting distance so you can cut down your transmission power.
As you can see, it’s impossible to achieve outstanding long battery life, long range, and high accuracy at the same time. We always recommend experimenting with different settings (starting from the lowest ones) to find the optimal configuration for your project. Keep in mind, though, that each reconfiguration also slightly drains the battery, so always test on a small batch of devices. Environment-specific factors like temperature or humidity also affect the battery life While battery forecasts provided by hardware manufacturers are usually done in laboratory conditions, your devices might operate in less optimal environments, leading to increased power consumption.
If you know your deployment will be exposed to extreme temperatures or frequent temperature changes, keep this in mind. You can read more about the impact of temperature on battery life in this article. The big takeaway for your vendor hunting is that you should always check what configuration settings a vendor used for calculating the expected battery life. At the end of this chapter, you can find a comparison of Kontakt.io tags and beacons, including expected battery life on the lowest settings. You can read more about how to optimally set up your devices in our guides on transmission power and the interval in this article.
Some beacon and tag manufacturers offer firmware and software features that allow for saving the battery life:
Using power saving can even multiply a device’s lifespan, so make sure to put this feature on your hardware requirements checklist.
Sensors make your solution aware of the environmental conditions of your deployment. You can use tags and beacons solely for the purpose of collecting telemetry data (in some verticals and use cases, they’re an affordable alternative to other technologies) or gather it on top of location data. No matter what your case is, you need to define what sensors you’ll need and select hardware that has them built-in (remember, although some manufacturers offer sensors as add-ons, this doesn’t mean you can purchase devices first and add the sensors afterwards. This means you can select which sensors your tags will come with).
Keep in mind that just like location data, telemetry is useless if you don’t have a receiver to collect it.
You may not know that Bluetooth has existed as a standard for twenty years but Bluetooth Low Energy started with the release of Bluetooth 4.0 by Bluetooth SIG in 2010. The adoption skyrocketed after the introduction of Bluetooth 4.2 in 2014 (and the release of iBeacon around the same time). Currently, there are two main Bluetooth versions supported by beacons and tags offered today on the market:
In 2019, Bluetooth SIG announced Bluetooth Core Specification v5.1, offering even better power efficiency and, above all, Angle of Departure and Angle of Arrival, which will provide a significant boost in positioning accuracy (learn more about Bluetooth 5.1 in this article). The first Bluetooth 5.1-ready devices are being developed but we’ll need to wait a bit to see real-world deployments. Meanwhile, keep your eyes peeled for announcements.
Asset tracking, also called asset management or asset visibility, is the foundation of any RTLS (Real-Time Location System). It provides visibility of assets: their location and conditions, enabling you to quickly locate them on site, analyze their flow and usage and make data-driven decisions about replenishment, purchases, or efficiency optimization.
Long battery life and great signal stability are the key requirements for asset tracking. The signal performance will have a major impact on the accuracy of your solution. As asset tracking deployments often consist of hundreds or thousands of tags, making sure that your hardware’s lifespan is as long as possible, will save you the burden of replacing all your assets more often than needed.
Another main consideration when selecting asset tracking tags is the form factor. It should:
Tags for indoor asset tracking are usually smaller in size than their outdoor counterparts. As a result, they can hold fewer batteries and thus have a shorter battery life. Tags for outdoor asset tracking can be bigger so they can last longer but they must have more robust casing (at least IP 65) to operate in different weather conditions.
Additional features that can be considered for both types of asset tracking tags are buttons and sensors. In the asset tracking environment, a button can be useful for reporting any asset-related issues (like shortages or failures).
Sensor-wise, an accelerometer is the bare minimum: it will help you define whether an asset in on the move (in use) and save precious battery life when it’s not. Extra sensors will be a must-have if you’re interested in monitoring assets’ conditions. Otherwise, you can use them for condition-based power saving or cross out sensors from your requirements’ checklist if you don’t need them.
People visibility is about knowing where people are. It’s a common use case for workplaces, industrial environments, healthcare, and other verticals where understanding the flow of people is critical for optimizing productivity and/or safety. People visibility solutions enable you to locate anyone on site, analyze how people move through a venue, automate time reporting, and facilitate communications.
Here, the form factor is your starting point as it needs to be very specific. Because the tags will be carried by people, they need to be wearable. Usually, they take the form of a wristband or badge. When selecting tags for this use case, make sure it’s convenient to wear and it doesn’t interrupt daily activities. If your project requires it, find out if the hardware you’re researching allow for white labeling or customizations so you can adjust it to match visual guidelines of the enterprise.
Signal stability and battery lifespan are important for the same reasons as they are in asset tracking. Another feature you should definitely consider is an on-tag button. It will allow its carriers to easily send pre-set messages like: “I need help”, “I’ve finished my task”, or “Please send my supervisor”. Even if you don’t have any specific button application in mind now, it’s better to have it than not. You never know when you might need it.
Finally, keep in mind that some projects may have very specific requirements. Healthcare or food production may require an antibacterial tag surface; for some enterprises certain certificates or security protocols or a tamper-proof wristband fastening will be a necessity. Make sure to research hardware through this lens and ask vendors about it if the information isn’t available right away.
Condition monitoring is about understanding the ambient conditions of places and assets. In this use case, the variety of applications and their requirements is so huge that it’s impossible to cover all of them. The hardware considerations will be completely different for a cold storing facility wanting to monitor temperature levels in different storing zones, a hospital wanting to monitor temperature of stored medicines, a manufacturer wanting to monitor vibrations of their machines, and so on.
Here, the general guidelines will be:
Customer experience is about everything that helps make customers happy. This umbrella term contains solutions that were the first to adopt Bluetooth Low Energy for location: indoor wayfinding, location-based content, loyalty programs, and similar applications. These projects usually involve stationary beacons located at certain POIs (Points of Interest) where a user receives proximity-based mobile content or beacons creating a grid covering the facility to enable accurate indoor positioning with the use of trilateration algorithms.
For customer experience applications, the form factor varies but, usually, the more discreet it is, the better (so it doesn’t tempt potential thieves or distract the customer from the actual experience). As you may have already guessed, battery life plays a huge role, especially in wayfinding, which needs significantly more beacons than POI-based deployments. Similarly, exceptional signal stability can make or break a wayfinding project.
As the beacon lifespan will be your major concern, you may consider selecting a vendor that offers power-saving that allows for slowing down broadcasting when lights are off or at certain times of a day so you can save battery life when there’s nobody on site. Another nice-to-have is an option for white labeling or custom coloring or printing so you can brand your beacons or keep them as low-profile as they can possibly be.
Path to Success
Now that you understand what Bluetooth Low Energy technology is about, what features Bluetooth devices might have, and which ones your use case might need, you’re hopefully have the foundation for well-informed hardware selection.
We advise you start from the top and define your use case and draw your hardware requirements based on that (remember to rate each based on how crucial it is for your solution). Once you have a scorecard or checklist ready, start researching different products and select two to three that suit the most.
Purchase starter kits or a couple of items of each and run some internal tests to compare their real-world fit and performance, ideally in your actual solution. When you define a winner, get ready for a Proof of Concept and purchase from your selected manufacturer.
You may be also interested in our article abour What is Bluetooth RTLS.