What are beacons and how do they work?
Beacons are a small device that broadcast a low-energy bluetooth (BLE) signal nearby. You can use this signal strength to tell the approximate distance between the beacon and another bluetooth enabled device. This enables the ability to trigger actions based on proximity to that device. This could be sending an alert or performing an action once the app detects the beacon is a certain distance away, or it could be used as a method to track locations of people or products in an indoor environment. Due to satellite location systems being unable to work indoors, beacons are fast emerging as one of the primary indoor location technologies.
There are two major beacon protocols in use today, one developed by Apple known as iBeacon. The other made by Google is known as Eddystone. Beacons send along some basic information periodically: A unique identifier (UUID) along with major and minor numbers are used to identify the beacon itself. The signal strength and the interval between sending those signals are set by the manufacturer but can be changed to suit your needs. An Eddystone beacon can also send a URL address.
While a beacon is broadcasting its signal, it will require something else to receive and utilise that signal in some way, commonly via a smartphone and accompanying app. With the most current research in 2018 suggesting that 40 to 50 per cent of consumers leave Bluetooth turned on making their devices easily receptive to beacon messages, there’s a real opportunity to reach users through this channel.
According to Grand-view research, the Bluetooth Beacon Market will be worth $58.7 Billion by 2025 with bluetooth beacons estimated to have a large-scale adoption and a compound annual growth rate of 95.3% by 2025.
What can they be used for and who is using them?
The Hilton Hotel chain in the UK have combined beacon technology with their loyalty scheme app, allowing users to avail of digital check-in, skipping the need to wait at the check-in desk and also allowing the app to combine with beacons to operate as a digital room key for customers. The chain have already deployed this technology in a number of hotels in the UK but are hoping to have installed it at all 140 of their properties in 2018.
Gatwick Airport has recently deployed in excess of 2000 beacons to combine with AR to provide a comprehensive indoor navigation service for users of the Gatwick Airport app. This beacon infrastructure also has the potential to be utilised by the different businesses that operate within the buildings of the airport. Retail stores can push out offers and help drive sales. Airlines can potentially track whether a passenger who is running late is near the gate and approaching, they would then be in a position to choose not to bother unloading that passengers bag from the hold.
Some other examples of how beacons have been used are:
- Anything that requires a proximity check, for example something or someone entering or leaving a certain area.
- Retail stores pushing notifications to users with their app when they pass by or enter their store. In 2018, it is estimated that the retail industry will generate $968.9 million revenue with continued investment in beacon-driven platforms.
- Museums and galleries can have beacons attached to deliver information to guests about the exhibit they’re looking at.
- With a network of beacons set up, you can create an indoor positioning system that can track the movements of people or goods. This can be utilised in any number of ways but some common uses are stock tracking in warehouses or factories and as part of attendance tracking solutions. In fact, in 2018 the number of projects to embed Bluetooth beacons into packaging for high-value consumer goods is expected to increase this.
What should I be aware of before starting to work with beacons?
- Beacons determine an approximate distance between two points. One being the beacon and the other being a receiver, typically a smartphone. With a proper amount of beacons deployed, it is possible to approximate locations indoors. Beacons can be used outside but will not provide the same level of location accuracy of satellite location systems like GPS.
- The nature of low-energy bluetooth signals leave it prone to interference. Physical objects like desks or walls and of course people themselves can and will affect the signal strength that you can pick up from the beacon. You will be less likely to suffer from large amounts of fluctuating interference if the beacons are positioned up on walls or even the ceiling (so long as it's not too high) as opposed to on a desk or in a drawer.
- Beacons come in a variety of types, largely based around the shape and materials used in the casing. The other big factor will be how they’re powered. Most standard beacons will run off batteries that should last 1-2 years however some will be able to be charged via usb power instead. There are also models with a longer lasting battery available. The choice of model will affect whatever upkeep you will need to undertake to keep the beacons running in the long term.
- Beacons can have a sizeable up front cost associated with them but it depends on the amount of devices needed to accomplish your specific task. Beacons aren't particularly expensive on an individual basis but some bigger and more complex deployments can require hundreds or even thousands of beacons.
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