Ten Reasons Why Bluetooth Beacons Are Best for Indoor Positioning
iBeacons were launched by Apple nearly 10 years ago, and ever since then they’ve been used for indoor positioning. But they sometimes don’t have the best reputation. Here’s why we think, in the short-term at least, they’re the best available technology for indoor positioning. And how they don’t deserve any of the disdain they sometimes get.
1. They’re easy to install
It’s easy to be put off by the sheer quantity of beacons that may have to be installed. Often hundreds and sometimes thousands. But they’re small enough that they can be installed using adhesive tape. And they don’t need any cabling for power or connectivity. At Crowd Connected we often install Bluetooth beacons for temporary events. One person can oversee a small local team to install over 800 beacons in a 8 hours. One working day for 80,000 m2. For a permanent building install, you only need to do that once, which doesn’t seem so bad.
2. They’re cheap
Bluetooth Low Energy is one of the most mass-produced RF chipsets available. It’s ubiquitous - in around 1.6 billion devices sold annually. That gives it a great cost advantage over other technologies like WiFi, UWB or ultrasound. It’s very unlikely they’ll ever be able to compete on price. At around $10 per beacon, it’s the cheapest available hardware for indoor positioning.
3. They need very little maintenance
The ‘Low Energy’ part of Bluetooth Low Energy is important. BLE was designed from the very beginning to work with very low power requirements. A BLE transmitter for indoor positioning can run for years on a single battery. Try doing that with WiFi or UWB! And as chipsets get more efficient, the battery life only gets longer. Some of the current beacons on the market can run for 8 years before the battery needs replacing. Apart from this, there’s very little if any maintenance required. You really can install them, and forget about them for 5 years or more.
4. They provide ‘navigation-level’ accuracy
The signals from Bluetooth beacons aren’t ideal for positioning. There’s a lot of noise in the signals that makes accurate positioning very challenging. Some of the earlier solutions using beacons really didn’t perform that well. But recent advances mean that ‘navigation-level’ accuracy (2m - 6m) is entirely possible. BLE beacons aren’t the right technology if you need sub-metre accuracy for collision avoidance or personnel safety solutions. But if navigation, location analytics and customer engagement solutions are required, beacon-based positioning can be more than accurate enough.
5. You can put them where you need them
If you’re going to use WiFi signals for positioning, you have to work with the position of the access points where they are. The network is usually designed for connectivity rather than positioning. And if accuracy isn’t acceptable, it would be very difficult and expensive to start moving or adding access points. Bluetooth beacons are so cheap and easy to install, that you can put them exactly where you need them to achieve exactly the required level of positioning accuracy and easily move them around.
6. They don’t need calibration or fingerprinting
One way to try to get sufficient accuracy from noisy signals is to use fingerprinting. Many WiFi-based systems use this approach. It involves building up a map of the way signals behave across an entire site. It requires walking along every route, and in every area that positioning is required - often multiple times. The process is laborious. And if the environment changes, then a new fingerprint is necessary. Because of this, fingerprinting has never been a very satisfactory solution. And with the very latest positioning methods that combine Bluetooth beacons with inertial sensors, it’s thankfully no longer required.
7. They work anywhere
Some solutions look very attractive on paper. Particularly those that don’t require the installation of a single beacon! But there are usually some ‘ifs’ involved. They only work if there’s a certain type of WiFi installed, and if it’s designed to support location applications as well as connectivity. One of the beauties of using Bluetooth beacons is that the technology has no dependencies. It will work in each and every building, with no ‘ifs and buts’.
8. They work on all phones (iOS and Android)
Another problem with some solutions is that they can’t operate on all common smartphones. For example some WiFi based positioning techniques (that are often sold as ‘infrastructure-free’ because WiFi is likely to already be in place) will only work on Android phones. To support iOS as well, they need the addition of - you guessed it - Bluetooth beacons. A great benefit of BLE is that it’s built-in on almost every mobile device imaginable. Which means Bluetooth based positioning will work on every single one of those devices.
9. They provide consistent accuracy
A common headache with indoor positioning systems is inconsistency. When they’re initially set up and configured (often using fingerprinting), they work great. But then on another phone, on another day, it just doesn’t work at all. Using esoteric signals like the earth’s geomagnetic field sounds cool. But it can be very difficult to achieve uniform accuracy. The latest positioning techniques, using Bluetooth beacons and inertial data, can provide accuracy that’s not only consistent across phones, but also stable across the daily, weekly and monthly changes that occur in the environment.
10. They’re tried and tested.
The hardware itself has been around for 10 years. The positioning algorithms continue to get better and better. WiFi RTT, UWB, Ultrasound - they all promise sub-metre accuracy. But if you don’t need sub-metre accuracy, the unexciting but very mature Bluetooth beacon is, in our opinion, the undisputed best option.
So there are more than enough reasons to explain why Bluetooth beacons are the champions of indoor positioning and why we choose them to help us track visitors' locations within events, venues and buildings across the globe. Bluetooth beacons work reliably in any environment and are currently the only technology that delivers this level of consistency and reliability. At Crowd Connected, we continue to research the market and compare other tracking technologies as they appear but we’re confident that, alongside our software, algorithms and service team, these little portable beacons provide our clients with the most powerful indoor positioning solution at the best cost, available today.
About Crowd Connected
Crowd Connected provides venues, buildings and facilities, digital map providers and app developers with an indoor navigation system for mobile tracking, personalised engagement and footfall analytics. Contact us for more information and to see a live demo of our platforms and tools in action.