For many of us, our first encounters with Bluetooth probably came in the form of wireless headsets and hands-free devices. However, a new breed of Bluetooth devices is emerging — they are lower in cost and they consume less power.
From a non-technical and user perspective, the name Bluetooth appears to cover any form of Bluetooth connectivity and requires some sort of manual activation via your phone. In reality, there are two types of Bluetooth “radios” — Bluetooth Classic and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). Despite the name, Bluetooth Classic and BLE are not compatible with one another. This is because they are two different protocols.
Bluetooth Classic is often used for streaming high data loads such as music from a phone to a Bluetooth-enabled speaker, or streaming music to your headphones. As a result, Bluetooth Classic tends to transmit more data and consume higher levels of power.
BLE however, transmits data at a regular interval, consumes less power and as a result, can last for several months (sometimes up to years) on a single battery. This longevity is one of the reasons why it’s called low energy.
What exactly are Bluetooth beacons?
Bluetooth beacons are small and wireless battery-powered radio transmitters that use BLE as their transmission protocol. 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 do something with it.
The transmission distance sits around 10–30 meters for interior spaces and the hardware is highly cost-effective and low maintenance. This is because each Bluetooth beacon consists of only a small microprocessor, a radio, and a battery.
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 beacons allow businesses to automate certain processes and enhance experience-based actions and interactions. Bluetooth beacons are part of the Internet of Things (IoT), which is the connection between different devices and machines to collect and transfer data without human-to-human or human-to-computer relationships.
A short history of Bluetooth & Bluetooth beacons
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. Versions 2.0 and 3.0 required a two-way connection to work — meaning that devices are required to actively connect up with one another through pairing.
In 2010, Bluetooth 4.0 (Low Energy) was released and allowed for one way communication. This meant that devices could be configured to only transmit and isn’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 has now been discontinued and is no longer supported since 2018.
In 2016, Google announced the Eddystone-EID standard, which is similar to Apple’s iBeacon protocol, but with an additional extension to WiFi connected devices.
Due to the low cost of hardware production and size, AWS used beacons embedded attendee badges at their 2019 re:Invent event at Las Vegas to anonymously track foot traffic and attendance.
How do Bluetooth beacons work?
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, making it faster for devices to connect with and reduces a listening device scanning time. To prevent narrowband interference problems, BLE uses frequency hopping via digital modulation techniques or direct-sequence spread spectrum to counteract.
A Bluetooth beacon has a theoretical maximum radius distance of less than 100m. It can also have up to 6ms latency from a non-connected state. The actual range and response time depends 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.
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 an automated connection to occur.
The advantages and disadvantages of Bluetooth beacons
One of the major advantages of Bluetooth beacons is that they are cheap and easy to install. It is a physical device that can either be fixed or move with objects or people to help track their location. It is essentially a transmitter that you just have to install, and all that’s left to do is configure the actions that the beacon is supposed to perform.
In addition to low cost, the ongoing maintenance required is also minimal due to the long battery life.
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.
A disadvantage of Bluetooth beacons is that they don’t work by themselves. A beacon is one part of a system, meaning that the entire setup relies on users carrying a compatible device (in most cases).
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 and the beacons are attached to assets for the purpose of tracking their location within a facility.
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.
On the flip side, when you also have control over the receiving device, your end-to-end implementation of BLE can ensure a certain level of reliability and low maintenance. Due to the low power consumption, a Bluetooth beacon can last up to 3 years without a battery replacement.
Bluetooth is often used as a term that can refer to both Bluetooth Classic and Bluetooth Low Energy. However, they are two very different protocols that both use the Bluetooth brand name. The difference is in the protocol specifics, how they are used, and the applications they are used in.
When it comes to Bluetooth beacons, BLE is the protocol employed. It should be noted that Bluetooth beacons are only one part of a bigger puzzle. There are two major standards that govern the way beacons and devices communicate — something which will be covered in the second part of this series, in addition to real-life use cases.
On its own, a Bluetooth beacon is simply a broadcaster, transmitting data within a configured radius. It should be noted that the bigger the radius, the higher the power consumption.
Its low energy consumption makes it highly desirable from a maintenance perspective. Its low cost makes it highly desirable for long-term and mass implementations. Its decade worth of history, support and development by major tech companies makes the technology reliable with future growth, stability, and support.
Take your BLE knowledge to the next level
If you’re interested in learning more about beacons including an upcoming course on developing Bluetooth beacons, then check out the Bluetooth Developer Academy.
By joining the Bluetooth Developer Academy, you will get access to a growing library of courses and tutorials.
Here’s what one Academy member has to say:
If you’re developing a BLE project, you need two things, a good BLE sniffer and the Bluetooth Developer Academy. I am very happy to be part of this community and look forward to what comes next.– Christopher Gates, Principal System Security Architect – Velentium
The current courses include:
- The Basics of Bluetooth Low Energy
- Analysis of BLE events using a BLE sniffer
- Long-range mode (Coded PHY) using Bluetooth 5.0
- Developing nRF52 applications using Visual Studio Code
- Over the Air Device Firmware Update (OTA DFU)
- Getting Started with Zephyr (including adding custom GATT Services and Characteristics)
- Getting Started with BlueZ development
- …and more courses added each month!
For a full list of courses included, check out the Courses Library here:
The Academy also features a thriving community of Bluetooth experts, developers, and innovators. You’ll get to connect and interact with other experts in the Bluetooth space, learn from others’ experience and knowledge, and share yours.
Also included in the Academy is access to private support from me personally.
In the community, you will find:
- Discussions around new features such as long-range mode (Bluetooth 5.0) and direction-finding (Bluetooth 5.1).
- Discussions around the capabilities of different BLE sniffers.
- Comparisons of BLE support and restrictions in iOS and Android.
- Various technical questions and answers to these questions.
- Listing of Bluetooth-related job openings.
- And many more discussions!