— Smart Buildings: Beacons are key to the Building IoT platform

02.03.2022 | 3 min read

As organizations continue to invest in Smart Buildings to achieve greater efficiencies, cost savings, sustainability and convenience, a key component and unsung hero to the Building IoT platform are beacons.

What are beacons, exactly?

A beacon is a device that emits a radio signal that other devices in the vicinity can detect and interact with. In the case of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons, the signal is a BLE advertising packet containing the device’s unique identity that is broadcast at regular intervals. A Bluetooth-enabled device, such as a smartphone, can “see” the beacon when it is within range. Since Apple introduced iBeacon technology in 2013, BLE beacons have been used for multiple indoor location applications.

Source: BlueUp Srl.

Beacon use and evolution

Proximity marketing and in-store customer engagement applications sparked the initial interest in BLE beacon technology. Stores and other buildings such as museums, hotels, and airports) use proximity marketing to provide mobile services to customers and improve customer experience.

The purpose and ultimate goal is where “proximity marketing campaigns have the potential to successfully complete every step of the buying process,” says Marta Valsecchi, Digital Innovation Observatories at Politecnico di Milano.

Following proximity marketing use cases, applications began to focus on the industrial and production world, where the goal of implementing solutions concentrated on automatic identification, localization, and tracking. This market trend was also reflected in the technological evolution of BLE beacon devices. Initially, most BLE beacons on the market prioritized aspects such as aesthetic design or small size; however, today, all major beacon manufacturers around the world have products in their catalog that meet typical requirements for industrial applications, such as durability to weather, extended battery life, and their replaceability.

BlueUp: beacons and BLE tags for Industrial IoT

BlueUp, a supplier of beacons, provides a line of Bluetooth Low Energy beacons that are designed to meet the most stringent operational and performance requirements in the enterprise and industrial sectors:

BlueBeacon Brick, is encased in a waterproof case, with an extended temperature range and the best battery life-to-size ratio on the market; BlueBeacon Forte+, is also in a waterproof case, with a range of value-added applications stemming from its basic model: BlueBeacon Board, is ideal for integration in embedded electronic systems, and comes with an external temperature/humidity sensor, a high visibility LED for pick-to-light applications, and an alarm button.

Indoor Navigation featuring e-shelter security

Applications that use BLE beacons have evolved from simple proximity estimation to real solutions for indoor navigation, similar to GNSS satellite navigation systems and utilize new algorithms for improved position estimation. As a result, solutions allow not only the estimation of a user’s position, but also, tell which direction the subject is moving, which route he or she must take to reach a specific point, and which services are located in the vicinity. Beacons are installed in fixed and known locations in the mobile-based scenario, and they operate as real-time radio beacons, allowing portable devices (which can be a smartphone, a portable radio terminal, a GSM/NB-IoT/LoRA wearable device, etc.) to locate itself based on the signal strength received by the various beacons.

Mirror architecture employs beacons, which are personal devices (in this case, more correctly identified as tags, in analogy to active RFID technologies) worn by the user (pendant, bracelet, badge, etc.) and are located by an infrastructure of fixed antennas that function as BLE scanners.

In this scenario, in addition to the simplest solutions based on the use of the received signal’s power as a distance indicator, there are more advanced technologies based on the estimation of the angle of arrival (AoA, Angle of Arrival) or the angle of departure (AoD, Angle of Departure) that allow for localization with accuracy within one meter.

Source: Thing Technologies GmbH

In a facility setting, many of our customers deal with dozens of external visitors or employees from various offices on a daily basis, and they struggle to direct the flow of people in the right direction, especially with the challenges of COVID-19.

This system has an infinite number of applications. One is, as previously stated, navigation to a reserved resource. Another example is the possibility of finding a specific person inside the building (for privacy reasons, the default setting of the application does not allow location tracking; this must be activated manually by the user of the application) and reaching him or her in a simple and time-saving manner such as in the case of an external visitor arriving at the office. All network-connected resources, such as printers, meeting rooms, desks, parking lots, people, company cantinas, vending machines, elevators, and so on, can be reached using indoor navigation.

Other architectural solutions are possible, such as those based on BLE mesh networks, which are a very competitive option when update rate and high level position accuracy are not as critical.

Mesh network architectures enable devices (tags, beacons) to be powered solely by batteries, removing the complexity and lowering the cost of wired devices (clearly at the expense of performance, measured in terms of accuracy and frequency of position update).

Safety first: a use case that concerns us closely

The need for security and safety has provided a significant impetus to the use of beacon technology and BLE specifically across a variety of industries. Monitoring and controlling unauthorized access to restricted areas; monitoring of lone workers working inside the plant, with the possibility of localization in the event of an adverse event (alarm button pressure, fall, absence of movement); verification of the correct implementation of control procedures and inspection by surveillance personnel are some application examples. In terms of worker health and safety, the COVID-19 pandemic has created new demands for contact tracing, social-distancing, and assembly control, for which BLE-based localization technologies have proven invaluable.

Interpersonal distance monitoring, for example, can be performed using BLE wearable devices that act as both transmitters and receivers, such as BlueUp’s SafeX Tracer, in order to generate alerts when distance is missed and to track close contacts. These systems can also be integrated with fixed beacon infrastructures, for example, to track areas where an operator has been stationed during work activities, or with mobile tags to check personal protective equipment (PPE) or work tools.

Lowering operating costs, increasing productivity, introducing new products, and expanding into new markets are all goals that the Internet of Things can assist businesses in achieving. The evolution of the Internet of Things has the potential to improve people’s quality of life. If you want to make new discoveries, you should stop waiting and start experimenting.

We are well aware that this undiscovered world may appear difficult to manage and implement at first glance. In this regard, our experts are always available to offer advice and guide you on your digital transformation journey. e-shelter is here to help and to share our expertise.

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