Bluetooth Beacons: Cheap and Versatile
One of the most interesting, and practical, devices to arrive on the Internet of Things (IoT) landscape is the humble Bluetooth beacon. A friend asked me if these devices could be used as a GPS tracking device, which is as good a reason as any to write an article on these gadgets.
What Is It?
These devices have a small battery and are designed to periodically send out a radio blast that contains a unique code that identifies exactly which device the signal came from. A typical device like the ones you can pick up at any electronics store can run anywhere from six months to two years on a single battery. The battery life will vary by manufacturer, as well as how often the device is sending a signal, and how strong a radio pulse it is programmed to transmit.
What Can It Do?
It operates on Bluetooth frequency, which means any smartphone can download an app which will detect all of the Bluetooth beacons that are within 30 feet or so of the phone. The app will then remember exactly when and where it last saw the beacon, which means you can pull the info up at any time to see when that phone and the beacon were in the same place, at the same time. This capability allows for two common use scenarios:
- Static Beacon: If the Bluetooth beacon is permanently installed in, say, an office, you can get information about when a person’s phone is also in that office. Some apps will allow that information to be shared in a single location, which means you could get information about what time people showed up for work, when they left, and how long they took for lunch or a break.
- Mobile Beacon: If the Bluetooth beacon is attached to something that is on the move, then it is important to remember that the only time you will be able to “see” the beacon is when a Bluetooth receiver (like a smartphone) is close enough to the device to receive the signal. In some cases, the app you install may allow you to see all of the beacons you encounter over the course of the day, and some apps will even share that information with the beacon owner.
What Can’t It Do?
The big thing to remember is that this device can only transmit its identity, and only over very short distances. It is not a GPS tracking device, but it can be helpful in providing location information when used correctly.