Bluetooth beacons have become a phenomanen when it comes to location tracking, direct marketing, environment monitoring and data logging. This ultimate beginners guide to Bluetooth beacons is designed for people new to Bluetooth beacon technology, or have heard of it but don’t fully understand it. We have kept this guide to be as succinct and short as possible to bring you rapidly up from beacon newbie to a basic understanding.
What are Bluetooth beacons?
Bluetooth beacons are no more than small Bluetooth devices that broadcast a radio signal. At a basic level a Bluetooth beacon is no more than that. The signal they transmit is called an “advertisement” and follows standard Bluetooth protocols set out by the Bluetooth SIG. This makes them compatible with any other Bluetooth device. Their range can vary, some have a signal that goes no more than a few meters, and others can reach a hundred meters plus. With Bluetooth 5, Bluetooth beacons will have transmission ranges of many hundreds of meters, exceeding the range of wifi in certain cases.
Why are Bluetooth beacons special?
With Bluetooth 4 (Bluetooth Low Energy) Bluetooth beacons have become very energy efficient. Many can last years on a coin cell battery. Importantly, smartphones that include Bluetooth 4 (essentially all of them these days) can read the advertisements from Bluetooth beacons and act on them. This means any particular Bluetooth beacon has potentially billions of compatible devices that can read its data.
What do Bluetooth beacons actually do?
There are three things Bluetooth beacons do.
- Physical Web: Bluetooth beacons cause smartphones to do things. Generally this thing is to cause a notification on your smartphone and then bring up a web page when you open your smartphone. This is called the “physical web”. That is, a web page has been presented to you because of a physical device, the Bluetooth beacon. This interaction is most commonly used for promotional purposes, where if you walk past a shop with a Bluetooth beacon you will get a notification on your smartphone which could contain a special offer or some other incentive for you to enter the shop. This is referred to as proximity marketing.
- Telemetry: Bluetooth beacons relay information to smartphones. The advertisement can include useful information that a smartphone app can present to the user. The size of the payload is small, but is generally enough to pass information such as telemetric data, with temperature being a common example. Under Bluetooth 4, the payload was limited to a maximum of 31 bytes but a further 31 bytes in a scan response packet. With Bluetooth 4.2 the payload can be extended beyond this.
- Proximity: Bluetooth beacons can indicate how far away they are. This is not strictly a function of the Bluetooth beacon, since it is the smartphone that does the calculation based on radio strength. Examples of this type of beacon are key rings and indoor navigation devices.
An example of sensor beacons
What is iBeacon and Eddystone?
Eddystone and iBeacon are communication protocols, which sets out what the advertisement packet for that particular Bluetooth beacon needs to contain. iBeacon is the protocol for Apple iOS while Eddystone is the protocol for Android. With iOS an iBeacon has slightly better integration on iPhones and iPads but the advertisement packet is strictly controlled. For example it is difficult to contain telemetry data in an iBeacon. An iBeacon does work with Android, just not as good as with an iOS device.
Eddystone is a similar standard developed specifically for Android and there is greater flexibility in the advertisement packet. For example Eddystone does allow data from sensors to be included in the payload in what is referred to as Eddystone-TLM. Eddystone works with iOS but you don’t get all the features on iOS than you get with an iBeacon.
Should I care about iBeacon and Eddystone?
Not particularly. However if you want to develop your own apps for fun, then iBeacon is easier to integrate. Eddystone is slightly more difficult, but its flexibility can be more fun. Many advanced Bluetooth beacons do not use either Eddystone or iBeacon which allows them to include a lot more useful data. This is particularly the case for sensor Bluetooth beacons used in commerce and industry.
What do I need to know about buying Bluetooth beacons?
There are plenty of available (over several hundred at last count) and they are cheap. Some basic versions cost just a few dollars. A search on Alibaba will give you a good idea of what we mean. However it’s much like anything, you get what you pay for. The key things to watch out for are: battery life, range, advertisement packet, quality of any sensor on board, whether it complies with local regulatory requirements. On the later point, it is important to understand that cheap Bluetooth beacons from China are not licensed under radio regulations in Europe or the U.S. and are technically illegal.
How do I find out more?
There are many resources on the web to take you from a beginner to a master. However a good place to begin is Wikipedia since it has plenty of unbiased resource links that can take you deep into the Bluetooth beacon technology.