Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) Beacons
BLE beaconing technology is used for “locationing” or tracking an object’s location and/or movements. Basically, a BLE beacon is a type of active RFID, transmitting a unique ID (or signal) at regular intervals. For the most part, BLE beacons are one-way communication devices; from the beacon out to Bluetooth enabled devices that are "listening" for the signal.
What is Active RFID?
" . . . the term “active” means a transponder has a power source. This is usually a battery, but energy can also be captured from light via photovoltaic cells or other sources. An active tag can, therefore, broadcast its own signal, like a cell phone. Because an active tag has its own source of power to broadcast a signal, it has a longer read range than most passive tags.” Source: RFID Journal
While other technologies such as Wi-Fi and NFC perform similarly, BLE beaconing technology is a good choice for a number of reasons:
- Power Consumption – Bluetooth LE, as the name hints, has low energy requirements. (It can last up to 3 years on a single coin cell battery).
- Low Cost – BLE is 60-80% cheaper than traditional Bluetooth.
- Application – BLE is ideal for simple applications requiring small periodic transfers of data. Classic Bluetooth is preferred for more complex applications requiring consistent communication and more data throughput. Source: iBeacon.com
BLE technology has been around since 1994, but started to gain wider appeal in 2013 when Apple did two things:
- Introduced the iBeacon specification which set a standard for beaconing technology
- Began building beaconing functionality into their devices
Primarily beaconing technology has been used in retail, and still is, customizing shopping experiences with in-store promotions, product information and the like. However, in these instances consumers must "opt-in" to receive the benefits of the technology.
Since 2013 the technology has evolved; with beacons becoming significantly smaller and in more varied form factors. Today, BLE beaconing is emerging as a viable technology for a growing list of industries including, manufacturing, healthcare, hospitality, and entertainment. As reported by Forbes in a Sept. 2015 article, applications as varied as replacing hotel room keys with beacons to Major League Baseball using the technology to reach out to fans in the stadium with offers for seat upgrades and the like were being tested or were already in use.
So what are the possibilities for using beaconing technology in manufacturing? Just about everyone these days has a Bluetooth enabled device in form of a cell phone. Beyond that, many organizations have already invested in enterprise grade Bluetooth devices for data collection, meaning the "receiving device' is already in place . . . no opt-in required! We see great potential.
As mentioned previously, beaconing technology is used to track movement of an item, thus making work-in-process an obvious candidate for BLE beaconing. Today, BLE beacons are commonly put on reusable totes to track items through manufacturing. Similarly, BLE beacons are being used for order fulfillment to validate order picking and shipping to ensure each order is being loaded to the right pallet, dock door, truck etc.
Hardware (APs) are starting to include both 802.11xx and Bluetooth antennae. Software companies that are working in the IoT space are also including BLE capability in their systems.
The technology is continuously evolving and as it does, we'll keep you up to date!