Bluetooth beacons use Bluetooth LE, a low power version of Bluetooth to repeatedly send out a short amount of data typically up to 50m but in some cases hundreds of metres. The data usually includes an identifier in various standard formats such as iBeacon or Eddystone. It can also include sensor data.
The beacon advertising can be picked up by other Bluetooth LE devices such as smartphones, WiFi gateways to send to a server and single board computers such as the Raspberry Pi.
The key features are:
Low power and hence can work for up to years on battery power
Interoperability with a large number of other Bluetooth LE devices
The iB003N-PA has a range up to 300m because it uses the RFAXIS X2401C 2.4GHz amplifier to increase the range.
When you use the manufacturer app to change the power output by a beacon, you are changing the power output by the Nordic nRF51 System on a Chip (SoC) that is usually fed to the antenna. In the case of the iB003N-PA, the RFAXIS X2401C instead receives the signal, amplifies it and sends it to the antenna. The resultant change in output is:
20dBm is the maximum allowable output for class 1 Bluetooth. There’s no difference whether you set to 0dBm or 4dBm, the output will be 20dBm. Even at a low power setting, -10dbm, the amplified output is 10dBm which is relatively high compared to the nominal 0dBm for most beacons. That’s just over 3x the power (3dBm change is a doubling of power) of a normal beacon. You can see that this beacon is primarily designed for long distance and there’s no need to change the SoC power from the default 0dBm = 20dBm.
We sometimes get asked “What is iBeacon Technology?”. In terms of the beacon itself, iBeacon doesn’t imply much. The underlying Bluetooth does most of the hard work. iBeacon is only one of many possible formats of standard Bluetooth advertising.
The more useful functionality is in iOS itself. Apps can declare an interest in particular beacons and be triggered even when the app is not running. The triggering is usually used to cause a notification on the phone that the user can tap on to do more. If the app is already open, it can look for beacons and display appropriate app content.
Android may also trigger and scan for iBeacons but this is in the context of scanning for Bluetooth advertising as opposed to specific iBeacons.
We often get asked what’s the best iBeacon? Unfortunately, there is no one best beacon for all scenarios. It depends on your particular project and business requirements. Having said this we have some favourites based on specific characteristics:
Best for Price:TON9108 – Well built, Apple MFi certified beacon.
Beacons are small computers that run software, or more specifically firmware. Beacon manufacturers write the firmware that uses Bluetooth software libraries to send out iBeacon, Eddystone and/or sensor data advertising.
When a beacon supports over-the-air (OTA) update, it allows that firmware to be updated without physically connecting to the beacon with wires. An app, such as Nordic nRF Toolbox is used to connect to the beacon via Bluetooth and update the software.
In practice, manufacturers rarely update their firmware so whether a beacon supports OTA update or not isn’t usually an issue.
The only beacons that tend to get updated, as a matter of course, are Sensoro beacons, when the user wants to switch between standard Sensoro firmware and Eddystone Standard GATT firmware.
Most beacons’ configuration app have a setting for ‘measured power’. This doesn’t change the power output by the beacon. Instead, it’s a value that’s put into the advertising data that declares to receiving devices what the power should be at a distance of 1 meter from the beacon. Receiving devices such as smartphones and gateways can use this to help calibrate a calculation to determine the rough distance from the beacon.
You don’t usually change this value and it’s actually rarely used. In most cases the value is irrelevant and can be ignored. However, if your app or receiving device does use this value, it’s best to first do some tests to see what the power level is in your particular situation. Things like the physical environment, blocking and beacon orientation can affect the actual power level at 1m. Set the value according to your particular scenario.
There are lots of brands of iBeacon and Eddystone beacon. Each brand has its own management app. We have often been asked, “Is it possible to have just one app to manage different brands of beacon?”
While it’s technically possible, there’s no incentive for anyone to create such an app. Creating just one app to manage one beacon brand, across iOS and Android is significant effort in itself.
Google spotted this problem and created the Eddystone Configuration GATT Service. The idea is that if manufacturers used just this, apps and beacons would be inter-operable. However, people want to configure iBeacon as well as Eddystone. Manufacturers also want to allow users to configure and read sensor data. Also, using Eddystone Configuration GATT Service software in all future beacons does nothing to help manage the large number of beacons that are already out there.
As of writing this, in the 18 months since Eddystone Configuration GATT Service was published, no apps have been published that work with the Eddystone Configuration GATT Service. However, the Nordic nRF Connect app does understand some of the Bluetooth Characteristics to better read these kinds of beacons. There hasn’t been a rush for manufacturers to use Eddystone Standard GATT. We only stock the i7 and Sensoro range.
Back to the question. It looks like there will be a separate app per manufacturer for the foreseeable future.
The main difference between beacons and RFID is the range. RFID only works up to 1m while beacons typically reach 50m to 100m, even more for specialist beacons. It’s also possible to get an indication of distance to the beacon whereas with RFID it’s just ‘seen’ or ‘not seen’.
RFID tags are less expensive than beacons. However, as the range of beacons is much larger, fewer readers are required thus compensating for the extra cost. It’s also possible to totally cover a much larger area.