What is a BLE “Beacon”?
First off, what is a beacon and how do they work? I like to use the analogy of a lighthouse, a beacon has one simple purpose, and that is to send out a signal and say I am here. It’s completely unaware of any mobile devices that are around it, it doesn’t connect or steal their data. The beacon just sends out the signal and says hey, I’m here, I’m a beacon, much in the same way a lighthouse would.
Beacons can store small amounts of data such as an ID or even a short history of a connected sensor. They don’t directly connect to the Internet, a beacon is a very simple device. While the beacon is “beaconing” it is sending out something called an advertising packet, which can include an ID along with other data like Major, Minor or URL.
Beacons are used in many different situations from retail to museums, airlines and airports, and even sometimes indoor navigation. They are often battery powered and can run for as short as a few days to a few years. They can even be a mobile device, an iPad, an iPhone, an Android device. They all have Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) capable antennas. Mobile devices can do something special, they can not only be a beacon but they can also see other beacons!
Wait, what about an iBeacon?
Beacons first became popular when Apple first introduced something called “iBeacon”. There’s a lot of confusion between beacons and iBeacon. Do Apple own beacons, and what is an iBeacon versus a beacon? Well, a beacon is a physical device with the antenna and the Bluetooth Low Energy stack that can send out packets. Now, iBeacon is not a physical thing you are unable to touch but, iBeacon is a layout of that packet or away to format the data being sent by the BLE Beacon. You can have various different layouts from different manufacturers. iBeacon is proprietary to Apple, but that doesn’t mean that Android and other devices cannot see those beacons.
While BLE or Bluetooth Smart has only been with us for about 8 years now, the idea of a beacon using wireless RF has been around for much longer!
Limitations of using BLE
Bluetooth Low Energy is a great technology and has its proper place. Using BLE for short range low bandwidth communication such as in a retail setting when letting a nearby mobile device know that you have a deal for them or for device to device automation.
The biggest issue which might interfere with Bluetooth Low Energy becoming the protocol of choice is the bandwidth interference. BLE uses the same bandwidth (2.4 GHz) as your WiFi, regular Bluetooth, and ZigBee. The more devices you have on your frequency, the greater the interference and latency.
Wireless audio products, like speakers, use Bluetooth Basic Rate/Enhanced Data Rate (BR/EDR), which is designed for continuous wireless connections and is optimized for audio streaming. Bluetooth mesh networking uses Bluetooth LE, which is designed for short-burst wireless connections. The mesh networking specification is only available for Bluetooth LE and does not support audio streaming.
So, what are my alternatives to BLE?
Thread: Thread is a short-range wireless technology that is originally designed for home use. It has built-in security at the network layer along with mesh right out of the box. Oh, did I mention yet that its low power meaning a Thread device can easily run on a battery? Thread is an open wireless protocol that natively handles IPv6 (the next generation of Internet Protocol addressing) and, like ZigBee, is based on the 802.15.4 radio standard. (Thread does not handle the older, but more commonly used, IPv4 Internet address standard.) Thread technology is also backed by some of the largest chip manufacturers in the world like; ARM, Silicon Labs, Qualcomm, NXP, and many more. See more on our blog about Thread.
LoRa: LoRa Technology offers a very compelling mix of long range, low power consumption, and secure data transmission. Public and private networks using this technology can provide coverage that is greater in range compared to that of existing cellular networks. It is easy to plug into the existing infrastructure and offers a solution to serve battery-operated IoT applications.
Active RFID: There are two main frequencies used by active systems – 433 MHz and 915 MHz. User preference, tag selection, or environmental considerations usually dictate which frequency to use for most applications. Companies generally favor RFID systems that operate on the 433 MHz because it has a longer wavelength enabling it to work a little better with non-RF friendly materials like metal and water.
Passive RFID: Generally speaking, three main parts make up in a passive RFID system – an RFID reader or interrogator, an RFID antenna, and RFID tags. Unlike active RFID tags, passive RFID tags only have two main components – the tag’s antenna and the microchip or integrated circuit (IC). As the name implies, passive tags wait for a signal from an RFID reader. The reader sends energy to an antenna which converts that energy into an RF wave that is sent into the read zone. Once the tag is read within the read zone, the RFID tag’s internal antenna draws in energy from the RF waves. The energy moves from the tag’s antenna to the IC and powers the chip which generates a signal back to the RF system. This is called backscatter. The backscatter, or change in the electromagnetic or RF wave, is detected by the reader (via the antenna), which interprets the information.
Need help picking a new Technology?
While Echolo loves BLE, we just prefer to use the best tool for the job and make sure our customers are getting the biggest value out of the Internet of Things.
When companies look to secure outside help they tend to be more successful and reach the market faster.
Companies are often concerned that their employees lack IoT skills and knowledge, along with senior managers lacking knowledge of, and a commitment to, the required technologies to succeed with an IoT strategy. The Internet of Things is new and often a very nebulous idea. In fact, 70% of companies often look to outside consultants or IoT companies for help or try to learn from early movers in similar markets.
When companies look to secure outside help they tend to be more successful and reach the market faster. Consultants like Echolo have often seen the pitfalls and can help identify issues early because of the experience they already had with launching IoT based projects. Echolo can help build and deploy your custom IoT solution, come work with us!