Bluetooth beacons signal future public safety apps and advantages

The next big thing in mobile communications is likely going to be tiny Bluetooth beacons, which use short-range communication to great effect. This is especially true now that Apple has integrated beacon functionality into the iOS 7 operating system, allowing the devices to communicate with smartphones without a user having to authorize it beforehand.

Beacons are often hard plastic nodes that look like the handholds on a rock-climbing wall, and they stick to almost any surface. But beacons could look like anything, or could even be hidden inside a wall or other surface.

Inside most beacon cases are powerful ARM processors. Models can include storage capacity, accelerometers, temperature or other sensors that don’t take up too much space or battery power. Every beacon also needs a built-in Bluetooth 4.0 chip, also called a BLE (Bluetooth low energy). Most beacons can run for up to two or three years on a single battery. In theory, beacons could draw power from nearby computer systems or wall outlets, leading to indefinite operations beyond the years that most offer today.

Beacons continually transmit a 2.4 GHz Bluetooth signal, which can be picked up by an increasing number of smartphones that pass anywhere between four inches and 200 feet from the transmitter.

Although they don’t have the range of an 802.11 wireless setup, beacons have other advantages. They can be deployed anywhere without the need for supplemental power or even infrastructure. Also, because the range is limited, there is little chance that beacons will be competing with one another, overlapping signals on devices as they pass.

The devices have been tested already in public places, such as at Citi Field in New York City. According to Mashable, the beacons deployed there triggered users’ phones to send data to a server, which then displayed a map of the surrounding area to help people find their seats. Beacons placed inside stores can broadcast information about sales and products to the phones of people walking outside. Once inside a store, different beacons will push data about specific products to users’ phones depending on their location within the store.

While the beacons might be fun at a ballpark, or arguably helpful at the mall, where they may come into their own is as a tool for emergency response personal.

Because GPS-based 911 call tracking from smartphones is still notoriously difficult in big cities and inside buildings, beacons can help rescue personnel pinpoint the locations of people who need help. If beacons were installed in stairwells and on different floors of a building, rescuers could home in to the cell phone of the person who called for help. Or, in a campus setting, phones that call for help could automatically grab and send their locations based on the nearest beacon.

Beacons can also be used to remind people to switch off their phones when they enter secure areas of an office building or hospital. They can be used to take temperature readings in offices or data centers,

They could also be used to aid security or even military personnel. Set up at the perimeter of patrol areas, they could ensure that guards are working on the correct floor, or within their assigned areas. They could even be used to count how many times a security guard passes and trigger an alert if the guard doesn’t show up again at the proper time.

Metrics from indoor navigation applications like these could improve security, safety and efficiency in government, healthcare, transportation, finance and other industries, experts say.

According to Business Insider, PayPal and Qualcomm are working on beacon hardware of their own.

In fact, Qualcomm’s Gimbal Proximity Sensor is now available, and supports iOS today and Android in the future. Smaller vendors like Estimote, Swirl, and GPShopper are also offering beacon management and consulting on top of hardware or software platforms. Additionally, many beacon devices are sold with software development kits so that developers can program their own applications.

And for users who don’t want to be bombarded with information from beacons, there is a simple solution. Simply disable Bluetooth.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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