Beacons improve personal navigation for travelers, disabled

Beacons improve personal navigation for travelers, disabled

From finding out what modes of public transport will get you where you need to go (“Bus 52 is delayed 20 minutes. Bike available 10 feet away”) to the name and history of the building you are approaching, beacon technology gets location-specific information to people exactly when and where they need it.

Some transit hubs, like airports and subway stations, can be confusing to infrequent visitors.

“Airports are important public areas where information exists but can be hard to access while on the move,” said Laetitia Gazel Anthoine, CEO of Connecthings. In Bologna, Italy, the company installed beacons that address travelers needs based on where they are in the airport, such as the  terminal entrance, check-in stations, duty free shopping areas, boarding gates, or coffee shops.

For those travelers with a disability, navigating such complex facilities can be especially daunting. At San Francisco International Airport, a prototype smartphone application from uses beacons, Wi-Fi access points and a mobile app to help visually impaired passengers navigating through Terminal 2. The app also offers routing-by-voice through the smartphone’s accessibility feature. A similar project, a partnership between Wayfindr, a UK-based nonprofit, and digital product studio Ustwo, put Bluetooth-assisted beacons in the London Tube to guide vision-impaired people through the transportation system. 

Columbus, Ga., has gone all-in on beacons, with help from a San Diego-based company Piper, which has invested more than $10,000 to make Columbus the first iBeacon city. Realizing that for beacon-based navigation to gain traction it needed a critical mass of users, Piper decided to blanket one small city with its own technology, rather than compete with various beacon apps and protocols already in use in larger cities.

The company wanted to give residents “one application that gives them proximity messages wherever they go,” Piper CEO Robert Hanczor told FastCo. “We really evolved with a mission of becoming the browser of beacons."

Some 1,300 beacons have been installed throughout the city – in McDonald’s restaurants where patrons can download coupons, along the 15-mile-long RiverWalk park where information on places of interest are available and at the local university for self-guided tours. The Piper mobile app also allows users to report suspicious or non-emergency activity.

Localized emergency information

In the future, Anthoine said she expects an increasing number of cities will use beacons to deliver emergency alerts and information --sending an Amber Alert to those in the area where a child was last seen, for example.

One low-cost tool can help rural or small fire departments keep track of their firefighters inside burning buildings. The Firefighter Accountability and Proximity system (FFAP) uses beacons that send alerts when a firefighter is down, pinpointing the location by measuring the relative distance and elevation between the beacons the firefighter is wearing and one outside.

The FFAP beacon automatically turns on when it detects motion. It sends out an alarm if its wearer doesn’t move or if the firefighter carrying the beacon manually sends an alert. The beacons are tracked through an Android smartphone application.

The bottom line is that beacons can be used for whatever localized information citizens need,  Anthoine said. “Cities create an infrastructure onto which any mobile app can plug.”

About the Author

Suzette Lohmeyer is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.


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