Bluetooth Beacons for Tracking?

Bringing indoor location to the IoT world

As we know, Apple’s launch of iBeacons in 2013 started a gold rush in proximity-based applications. Since then we have become familiar with using the tiny, long-lived devices to trigger delivery of contextual information. Museum visitors get vivid displays about the exhibit they are approaching. Shoppers at bricks-and-mortar stores receive promotions when walking by a specific section of a store. And there’s more…iBeacons small form-factor

Later on came the systems that leveraged iBeacons’ ambient signals to provide location coordinates, latitude and longitude. And now, the latest systems enable efficient tracking of people and assets through a physical indoor space. How does it all work?

How beacons are used

Bluetooth beacons are small form-factor devices consisting of a radio transmitter and a battery in a tough enclosure. They are a class of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) devices that periodically broadcast their identifier; that is, they “advertise”. Nearby devices that “listen” for BLE signals react to these advertisements. Different behaviors are possible for the receiver of these signals. Some examples:

Proximity applications. iBeacons how proximity worksApple’s iBeacons protocol enables an app running on the client device to react to iBeacons placed at given locations in a venue. The app “listens” to advertisements, and upon detecting a specific identifier, it displays content downloaded from a server.

 

Device location by ambient signals. ble-signals-locatingAgain, iBeacons are placed throughout a venue. By first scanning the iBeacons’ signals, users build a database of iBeacons identifiers detected throughout the space. Client devices running Accuware Indoor Navigation can now obtain their physical location (latitude, longitude and level) in the site

Tracking mobile device with BLE receivers.
ble-beacon-trackingIn this case, BLE “receivers”, referred to as BLE nodes, are placed at known locations throughout a venue. This time, the BLE beacons are moving, attached to mobile assets or carried by people. Each beacon is configured to identify an asset or a person.

Note that this turns the iBeacon model on its head. It is the BLE beacons that move while the BLE nodes are static. When three or more BLE nodes detect the same beacon, the system can triangulate that beacon’s location. This is how Accuware Bluetooth Beacon Tracker works.

Summarizing, 3 models are possible: BLE beacons can be used either to trigger (contextual) proximity actions, to obtain indoor location or to perform real-time tracking. But, why use BLE beacons for tracking?

Tracking with BLE beacons

Here is our CEO demonstrating how Accuware Bluetooth Beacon Tracker works:

Let’s review what it takes to implement a tracking system based on BLE beacons.

BLE Node

BLE Node

System components include: iBeacons, BLE nodes, and a cloud-based server. iBeacons move around advertising their identifiers. BLE nodes collect the clients’ advertisements and upload that data to the server. The server estimates the clients’ locations relative to the BLE nodes’ known locations.

Simple, but why use BLE beacons instead of other technologies such as WiFi? Are there any advantages?  YES! The beacon’s long battery life. Let’s take a closer look.

Long battery Life

One of the big challenges of tracking movement using electronic mobile devices is their battery life. Imagine tracking patients at a hospital using mobile devices whose battery life is just a couple of days. That means recharging or changing the battery overnight every two days. Sony CR2032 coin batteryNow imagine tracking a valuable asset, like an EKG machine at an emergency room. How often would you want to have to recharge the battery? Now imagine tracking dozens, or even hundreds of people or assets. From the maintenance standpoint, it can be expensive and inconvenient to do it daily. Now, what if the battery charge lasted many months?

That is precisely what BLE beacons provide: extended battery life. This is because of their very low energy demand for simply advertising their presence, and the ability to configure the frequency of their advertisement, which is the major culprit in draining the battery.
There are several BLE beacons providers. All of them highlight battery life for a good reason.

What does it take to set up indoor tracking?

Bluetooth Beacon Tracker provides a dashboard for system administration and management. That’s where the setup process starts. The steps are:

  1. Physically place BLE nodes on each floor, in a grid pattern. BLE Nodes marked on floor planBLE nodes are simply plugged into regular power outlets.
  2. Upload one or more floor plans or maps to the dashboard
  3. Overlay and resize the floor plans on top of a Google map representation of the target venue, one floor at a time.
  4. Mark the location of each BLE node on the corresponding floor plan on the dashboard. Note that this process “anchors” the location of each BLE node to a latitude and longitude on a given level
  5. Register each BLE beacon identifier via the dashboard, and configure the system to receive data uploads from the BLE nodes.

And the setup is complete.

How does this work in a real application?

Tracking in real time the physical location of people and mobile assets is a critical need in many applications.  Tracking patients in a nursing facility, lift trucks in a warehouse, mobile medical equipment in a hospital, or children at a child care facility, all share a strong requirement to identify and locate in real time.  And very often, to learn where everyone and everything has been over time.

Radbeacon Dot tracking assetsSetting up an application takes a few steps:

  1. Configuring the BLE beacons’ identifier and its advertising frequency
  2. Recording the BLE beacon identifier via the system dashboard, to associate its identifier with a person or asset to track.
  3. Affixing the BLE beacon to the corresponding asset, or enabling a person to carry it.

BLE beacons must be configured with a unique identifier.  In addition, depending on application requirements, the frequency of advertisement should be adjusted to meet practical needs while maximizing battery life.  For example, advertising frequency could be set at 10 seconds to track patients in a hospital.  Tracking fast moving vehicles, such as autonomous robots in a warehouse may require more frequent advertisement. In all cases, you should refer to the manufacturers’ specifications to achieve the desired effect.

Would you like to try this system in your environment?  Contact us for details.

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