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Beacons – Stop Gap Technology?

As beacon technology has continued to advance, we are still being asked the same question – are beacons a stopgap technology until the Internet of Things (IoT) matures?

In 2013 when iBeacons were quietly announced by Apple at WWDC, early speculation focused on using the technology in retail. While Mubaloo Innovation Lab has helped retailers and advertisers mature the consumer use cases and develop valuable solutions to help enhance customer engagement, many of the most impactful use cases of beacon technology have been developed for the enterprise. Asset management, employee presence monitoring, health and safety compliance checks are just a few examples of how beacons are being used in the enterprise. However, as the technology has continued to advance, we are still being asked the same question – are beacons a stop gap technology until the Internet of Things (IoT) matures?

Beacons are inherently dumb. They emit a bluetooth low energy (BLE) signal multiple times per second, which can be received by a mobile app to prompt a specific action to be taken. This has meant that a beacon can be placed on an asset or in a location to connect that thing or place and give it a digital presence. IoT devices, in comparison, connect to the internet and are able to send and receive data as well as run operating systems. One would therefore assume that beacons will become redundant when IoT devices become more prevalent. However, in many enterprise use cases, beacons can actually be more than a stop gap solution.

Infrastructure Limitations

Recently, we visited a large engineering firm who specialise in manufacturing engines. Their machinery is IoT enabled and has been for a number of years. However, despite having access to this relatively technologically advanced solution, current network and connection speeds mean that having a large network of connected devices poses critical infrastructure problems for the company. Data from the machinery was flooding their network with more requests than it could handle and subsequently reducing performance.

In this instance, beacon technology could provide a solution where the firm can still access the critical data from assets, without any impact on the network. Beacons could be attached to the machinery and data only requested when a user enters the specific region to query information. This would mean that data is only posted when required, as opposed to being constantly streamed at set intervals. You could argue this could be resolved by throttling the number of requests per hour for example, however there are also two other factors for companies to consider.

Environmental Impact

Having multiple devices or machines that connect to the internet consume more power than a battery enabled beacon. There is, therefore, a direct environmental impact associated with deploying connected devices, which companies need to factor into the decision making process. For example, one of our clients is investing in developing a smart office. To enable this, they require indoor positioning. To improve indoor location accuracy the client has explored using additional wifi access points versus deploying BLE beacons. Beacon technology proved to be better suited to solving the problem, as beacons will cost less to deploy across the office location and will also have less of an environmental impact than the alternative. With fewer access points consuming power in the building, beacons help the company reduce their carbon footprint.

Cost Implications

In addition to these benefits, beacons provide a more viable solution for providing micro location information (within a few metres). For companies that require micro location data in outdoor environments such as train stations, it becomes costly and logistically difficult to equip multiple environments with a number of wifi access points. In these cases, beacons provide a more beneficial long term option for businesses, by offering a simple solution for providing micro location positioning, at a fraction of the cost. Solutions are emerging to monitor beacons and battery life through a central super hub, therefore overcoming some of the initial maintenance difficulties associated with deploying large beacon networks.

Micro location accuracy

Beacons have also been shown to be more reliable in providing micro location accuracy. Wifi solutions lack the coverage of a beacon network, unless the company is willing to invest in more access points that would typically be required for wifi coverage. Latency from wifi access points, means that location is only updated every few seconds, as opposed to being updated multiple times per second when using beacons. In indoor environments, the user could have moved to a completely different room in that period of time, making for a poor indoor mapping experience.

That being said, we do expect wifi solutions to improve as technology advances, which will likely result in the provision of more accurate location services.

We are a number of years away from having the infrastructure available to realise the true potential of IoT. However, beacon technology offers a cost effective solution that works today and, in a number of cases, offers a viable long term solution to solve business problems with an associated cost and environmental benefit.  
There are clearly numerous technologies at one’s disposal, but defining business objectives and outcomes related to the operation is important for determining the best technology solution for the use case. Developing a clear strategy that is user focused, will help uncover opportunities to improve and enhance the business operations. The appropriate technology can then be applied to achieving these outcomes and in many cases hybrid solutions will prevail.

By Tom Barbour

@TomBarbour1

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