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What is a Beacon? A Guide to Bluetooth Beacon Technology

Bluetooth beacons are alive and well due to their low cost and widespread usage in commercial spaces like retail stores and logistics. 

The technology itself has been around for a while but gained widespread awareness when Apple released its iBeacon protocol in 2013. Since then, adoption has increased as businesses and developers come up with creative ways to use the technology. 

Whether you’re a consumer looking to understand how these little devices work or a Bluetooth developer looking to dive into the technical specs, you’ll find what you need in this article.

What is a beacon?

Bluetooth beacons are small wireless, usually battery-powered devices that transmit data at regular intervals using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). This mini-radio transmission device can be ‘discovered’ and seen by all BLE scanners within a certain radius. The Bluetooth beacon, however, cannot ‘see’ anyone back.

It doesn’t require an Internet connection and acts as a broadcaster within a short-range radius. The receiving device, such as a BLE-enabled smartphone, often acts as an intermediary device that uses the information from the beacon to transfer it somewhere or do something with it.

Bluetooth beacons enable the connection between the physical and digital world by creating a communication bridge between enabled devices and the person carrying them.

In doing so, Bluetooth Low Energy beacons allow businesses to automate certain processes and enhance experience-based actions and interactions.

Beacon technology: a brief history

The original Bluetooth technology was originally created by Dr. Nils Rydebeck and Dr. Johan Ullman in 1989.

Since then, Bluetooth has gone through many iterations to include more features, increased speed, and bandwidth. The Bluetooth specification is managed by the Bluetooth SIG, which released corresponding Versions 2.0 and 3.0. These versions required a two-way connection to work — meaning that devices are required to actively connect with one another through pairing.

In 2010, Bluetooth Low Energy (in version 4.0) was released and allowed for one-way communication (Hint: this is what enabled beacon technology!). This meant that devices could be configured to only transmit and aren’t required to listen, thus reducing power consumption significantly in the process.

On June 10th, 2013, Apple introduced iBeacon as part of iOS 7 at the World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC 2013). iBeacon is a protocol standard that enables mobile apps to listen for signals from beacons in the physical world and respond accordingly.

This led to the growth and adoption of Bluetooth beacon technology. By 2014, over 50 of the top 100 US retailers began to test beacon technology in their shops for contextual advertising and behavioral data gathering.

Around this time, Google also launched the Physical Web, which is a Chrome browser-based beacon scanner. The idea behind this is that unlike iBeacon, which required an app, Google’s Physical Web will allow a user through Google’s Chrome web browser to accept the URL and see the web pages with the associated spaces. However, it should be noted that Physical Web was discontinued in 2018 and is no longer supported.

In 2016, Google announced the Eddystone-EID standard. This standard is similar to Apple’s iBeacon protocol but with additional features to include encrypted identifiers, telemetry data, and more.

More recently, we have seen a wide range of beacon applications from asset tracking to proximity marketing – more to come on that later!

Beacon technology – an overview

So how do beacons work? In this section, we’ll cover an overview of everything you need to know to understand how BLE beacons work – and how you might be able to make use of them yourself.

💡Insider Tip: If you’re a professional Bluetooth developer, check out the Bluetooth Developer Academy, where you can unlock a comprehensive Bluetooth beacon video course!

How do beacons communicate?

Bluetooth beacons work by transmitting packets of data that are picked up by a compatible receiving device via radio waves. These packets of data are either self-contained or are triggers to events on the receiving device, such as push notifications, app actions, and prompts.

BLE uses the same spectrum range as Bluetooth Classic (2.400–2.4835 GHz ISM band) but on a different set of channels. BLE has 3 primary advertising channels. This makes it faster for devices to connect and reduces a listening device’s scanning time. To prevent narrowband interference problems, BLE uses adaptive frequency hopping mechanisms via digital modulation techniques or direct-sequence spread spectrum to counteract.

What’s the transmission range of a beacon?

A Bluetooth beacon has a theoretical maximum radius distance of less than 100m. The actual range and response time depend on the beacon itself and what process it has been programmed to do.

BLE is mostly used in short-range applications (using the standard 1M PHY). Most Bluetooth beacons can reliably transmit up to approximately 30 meters without any physical obstructions. A typical operating range is around 2 to 5 meters, depending on the transmit power. The higher the range, the higher the battery consumption.

Example of a Bluetooth Classic connection
Example of a Bluetooth beacon

In the case of smart devices like a phone, the acceptance of a BLE broadcasting signal is often enabled through an app that allows for automated scanning to occur.

The hardware inside beacon devices

Inside a beacon, you will find a small microprocessor, a radio, and a small battery (typically a lithium-ion battery). This extremely limited hardware makes beacon devices very cost-effective and easy to maintain.

Do beacons use Classic Bluetooth (BR/EDR) or Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)?

Bluetooth beacons use Bluetooth LE due to their fundamental need for one-way communication. On the other hand, Bluetooth Classic (BR/EDR) isn’t feasible for beacon applications because it requires two-way communication. This is an important distinction. Despite Bluetooth Classic and Bluetooth Low Energy sounding similar, they are two distinct protocols that are incompatible.

Because beacons utilize BLE,  you will sometimes hear a beacon referred to as a “BLE beacon.”

Beacon standards – iBeacon, Eddystone, AltBeacon

There are three main beacon standards:

1. iBeacon standard: A protocol developed by Apple in 2013 and introduced at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference. Being the first official beacon standard, there is widespread acceptance by developers and hardware support.

The iBeacon Packet Format

While iBeacon is only officially supported by iOS, APIs exist for Android applications to scan for iBeacon broadcasts. To do this, a user must have an app installed that’s developed to find the beacon and do something with it.

💡 Learn More: Implementing Bluetooth Beacons (iBeacons) nRF52 Use Case

2. Eddystone standard: A Bluetooth Low Energy data format that was released in 2015 by Google. It is an open protocol that is open-source and cross-platform, supporting both iOS and Android. 

The Eddystone beacon packet format

Unlike iBeacon, Eddystone only supports one main basic interaction — the “Eddystone discovery,” which is a similar concept to iBeacon’s ranging. However, Eddystone also added multiple types of data (called frames) that include much more information than what’s in the iBeacon protocol. For example, battery voltage reading, temperature, advertising count, and more.

3. AltBeacon standard: Not as popular as iBeacon and Eddystone, this is an open specification that was developed by Radius Networks. It was developed to provide a free, vendor-agnostic, open-source beacon standard.

💡Insider Tip: In the Bluetooth Developer Academy, we go deeper and explore the implementation details for both iBeacon and Eddystone beacons.

Mobile support (Android and iOS) for beacons

Support for the beacon standards differs somewhat between iOS and Android mobile device operating systems. This is partly due to the fact that Apple owns and manages the iBeacon standard.

On iOS, you’ll find built-in support for iBeacon, but Eddystone is not natively supported. To use Eddystone, you’ll need to use Core Bluetooth APIs, and you will still encounter some limitations.

On Android, there is no longer any special treatment for Eddystone beacons. iBeacons and Eddystone beacons are treated just like any other BLE device. I recommend using an open-source library such as Radius Networks’ Android Beacon library.

The advantages of Bluetooth beacons

BLE beacons provide many benefits to both developers and consumers. A few of the most important include:

  • Low cost. Because of their design, beacons are cheap to build. This makes them easy for developers to work with as well as practical for a variety of industries to purchase at scale.
  • Easy to install. Beacons are purposely designed to be small and simple to install in a variety of contexts. There are many types of beacons available that are built for specific applications, such as being mounted to a wall.
  • Low maintenance. Due to the low power consumption, beacons have great battery life. Many Bluetooth beacons can last up to 3 years without a battery replacement.
  • Receiving device flexibility. While the beacons don’t listen for a response, the receiving device can perform actions based on the beacon’s instructions. This includes, and is not limited to, things like check-ins on social media, location-based actions, push notifications, or sending data via the user’s Internet connection.

Disadvantages of Bluetooth beacons

On the flip side, there are some downsides to beacons. A couple I find the most important to consider are:

  • They don’t work by themselves. A beacon is one part of a system. By this, I mean that the entire setup relies on users carrying a compatible device (in most cases).
  • Functionality is limited by receiving device. Bluetooth beacon triggers can also be limited by the quality of the receiving device’s connection to the Internet. Sometimes, a roadblock can be as simple as a user needing to accept consent requirements when automatically logging into Wi-Fi hotspots first.

How are beacons being used? (real applications)

Bluetooth beacons were originally seen as an opportunity to offer users customized retail-related things like discounts and purchase suggestions. Its real-life applications, however, have extended beyond just retail.

Here are a few examples of how Bluetooth beacons are currently being used:

Key finders and tags

The popular Tile key finder tag started as a Kickstarter that raised over $2.6 million through preorders sold direction to 50,000 backers. Tile is a Bluetooth beacon that lets users find the attached item, such as your keys or wallet, all through an app on your phone. Other similar products include Chipolo, TrackR, Orbit, and Mynt.

Indoor Navigation

Disneyland Resort uses Bluetooth beacons to help guests navigate and use the theme parks and its resorts. This allows users to use an interactive map with relevant and real-time offerings that a physical map cannot replicate.

When the app is downloaded and BLE access is granted on the user’s phone, the visitor’s time at the theme park is customized based on personal preferences and any additional data given to Disneyland.

Many airports, museums, sports stadiums, and shopping malls also utilize Bluetooth beacons for this same purpose.

Enabled experience

San Franciso’s Asian Art Museum currently employs Bluetooth beacons as part of an enhanced visitor experience by offering exhibit information based on where they are standing in the Museum.

With over 18,000 pieces, the Asian Art Museum contains one of the largest Asian art collections in the world. Bluetooth beacons have been used to enhance the overall experience of a visitor by giving them immediate access without additional hardware or physical informational devices that are usually costly or oversized.

Event experience enabled by Bluetooth beacon technology

Asset tracking

In some systems, the receiver is instead a fixed device installed in a facility, and the beacons are mobile. One example of this is an asset tracking system with a fixed locator device. In this situation, the beacons are attached to assets to track their location within a facility.

Summary

Bluetooth beacons have had an interesting recent history, but with new creative uses for the technology popping up constantly, Bluetooth beacons aren’t going anywhere. 

Bluetooth beacons’ low energy consumption makes them highly desirable from a maintenance perspective. Their low cost makes them highly desirable for long-term and mass implementations. Their decade worth of history, support, and development by major tech companies make the technology reliable with future growth, stability, and support.

💡 Have more Bluetooth beacon questions? Enroll in the Bluetooth Developer Academy today to get exclusive access to the A Deep Dive Into Bluetooth Beacons video course.

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