Beacons Beckon Ubiquity In IoT Era

Context-aware devices are possible with Bluetooth Low Energy, but battery life is crucial.


In the early 1900s, radio beacons were created with the aim of tracking ships and planes. Prior to this innovation, pilots and ships’ captains usually relied on celestial navigation, and anyone who wanted to know their location was in the dark.

A century later, engineers took the concept and devised Bluetooth Low Energy-enabled beacons, a vast use never envisaged by their 20th century predecessors. Bluetooth Low Energy-enabled beacons might not track ships and trains but they do track millions of Internet of Things devices; they form the foundation of smarter homes and smarter events facilities (think sports stadiums), making the human experience in those places smoother and more efficient. Beacons transmit small packets of data that wake-up the listener. Actions can then be taken based not on a user’s general location, but on their proximity to something. Thus, beacons are ‘nearables.’

The possibilities
Beacons, like most Bluetooth Low Energy node devices, are essentially peripheral devices that spend most of their time asleep only waking up when it needs to send data and thereby consume low power.

With Bluetooth Low Energy, unlike classic Bluetooth, messages can be broadcast to unfamiliar phones – a paired connection is not necessary. Bluetooth Low Energy has a range of broadcast advertising modes which are used for the discovery and pairing process. However, these can also be used for general unacknowledged advertisements (non–connectable advertising mode) that can be detected by any phone with its Bluetooth receiver turned on. It is this mode that makes low cost beacons possible.

Advertising packets had the ability to send out signal strength information, a local name and manufacturer-specific identifier, which was powerful. With Bluetooth 5, advertising extensions and 37 additional advertising channels, the broadcasting capabilities of Bluetooth beacons have dramatically increased, allowing transmission of about 8x the amount of data.

What this enables is contextual awareness. Content and experience can be delivered based on the things we are ‘near’ – based on proximity to things in the physical world. This technology is transforming the physical world into a digital channel: ultimately moving from ‘What’ people buy/eat/watch/do to ‘How’ people buy/eat/watch/do.

This real-time consumer data is the priceless output of beacon technology. This can be analyzed, sliced and diced to better understand the market and consumers, increase efficiencies and ultimately revenues and profits. There is an immense potential for everybody – or should we say every space.

  • Retail: Malls and stores – purveyors of food products, durables and consumables
  • Mass Transit: Airports, train stations, parking lots and highways
  • Entertainment: Stadiums, theatres, restaurants and convention centers
  • Tourism: Stadiums, restaurants, theatres, parks, museums, hotels and ultimately cities

All these spaces have the potential to be “beacon-ized.” Silicon and solution providers hold the keys to unlock the potential of this market.

Silicon providers hold the keys to unlock this potential
With hundreds/thousands of beacons deployed in each of the spaces, this concept will not take off if one needs to change batteries every few months. Most beacons will need to be updated every 2-3 years due to the underlying technology it employs. The batteries in beacons should last longer than the rate at which the technology standards change. In the short term, for large scale deployment, batteries should not need to be updated before the beacon is updated itself.

For this be become a reality, we need truly low-voltage, low-power solutions that enable beacons to last longer. To increase battery life the Bluetooth Low Energy ICs incorporated in beacons need to satisfy four tenets of low-power design:

  • Low Power Standard (Bluetooth Low Energy 5)
  • Low Peak Currents (< 10 mA)
  • Low Sleep current (< 1uA)
  • Low Voltage (Sub-Volt)

The need for extended battery life is being understood and such low-power, low-voltage solutions are beginning to be available. For instance, Arm’s Cordio product line provides complete, qualified low power solutions for this space. BLE chips designed with Cordio IP can get over two years of battery life from a single zinc-air battery.

With such low-voltage and lower-power solutions, we can take this a step further. Billions of devices need not mean billions of batteries. Low voltage solutions extend themselves to energy harvesting applications. To truly enable the Bluetooth Low Energy beacons, we need to think thin (small cheap batteries), and think unattended (devices powered by energy harvesting technologies) and silicon providers need to take the right first step.

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