What’s the Best iBeacon?

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.

Best for Features: iB003N – Waterproof, large easy replaceable battery, long range, accelerometer, ultra long range and sensor variants.

Best for Battery Life: SmartBeacon-AA and SmartBeacon-AA Pro – Allow use of 4x AA batteries. Use lithium AA batteries for 7+ year battery life (also depends on settings).

Best for Setup App: Minew range – Minew’s latest BeaconPlus range (those supporting both iBeacon and Eddystone) provides the best in class app.

View our complete range.

What are Beacon OTA Updates?

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.

Secure Location Sensing in Healthcare

A research paper recently became available by Paul D. Martin and Michael Rushanan of Harbor Labs, Thomas Tantillo of Johns Hopkins University, Christoph U. Lehmann of Vanderbilt University and Aviel D. Rubin of Johns Hopkins University. The paper, Applications of Secure Location Sensing in Healthcare is part of the Proceedings of the 7th ACM International Conference on Bioinformatics. There are also some associated slides by Michael Rushanan.

The paper considers the use of beacons to track hospital assets and provide for location-based access to patient records. The tracking of hospital assets is an important usecase because staff spend:

“1 hour per shift searching for equipment and the average hospital owns 35,000 inventory SKUs and utilization hovers around 32-48%, with nearly $4,000 of equipment per bed, lost or stolen each year”

The second use, the reading of patient records based on location, is particularly security sensitive. The paper describes an implementation of what they call Beacon+ that builds on iBeacon advertising to make location sensing more secure.

The Beacon+ system uses “monotonically increasing sequence number and message authentication code (MAC)”. This is similar to the (optional) changing id provided by our Sensoro beacons. The concept is also similar to Eddystone-EID that was announced at about the same time this research was ongoing.
The paper discusses using the Translated Midpoint Method rather than trilateration as a method of determining location based on readings of RSSI of multiple beacons. The accuracy turned out to be 1-2 meters in the best case and 9-10 meters in the worst case that produced a better result than trilateration in their specific experimental situation.

As with this and other security sensitive scenarios, the use of changing UUIDs needs Internet access to reconcile ids. Hospital is a suitable case as it can be arranged to have reliable (WiFi) Internet access available. However, in many other scenarios, such as visitor spaces, particularly indoors or when the user is roaming internationally, Internet access isn’t always available. Also, depending on the quality of the Internet connection, a round trip to the server can slow detection response considerably and affect perceived reliability. Hence, secure rolling UUID schemes should only be used as and when security dictates and not as a matter of course.

The paper also mentions:

“There exists an implicit assumption that devices that can verify Beacon+ advertisements are also trusted”

Not all devices can be trusted. Android and iOS devices can easily be rooted/jailbroken and/or be compromised via malware. Hence, secure rolling beacons are only a part of defining a secure solution. As with other secure scenarios such as banking, apps have to make an self-assessment whether they are running on a compromised device.

Sensoro Micro Location

A unique feature of Sensoro beacons is that they have a patented dual antenna. Usually beacons only have one antenna and it’s difficult if not impossible to fine tune the beacon to a very short range. Minimum ranges tend to be of the order of metres.

Sensoro 4AA

Sensoro’s dual antenna provides what they call ‘micro location’ and together with the larger number of (12) power levels, provides short ranges down to 5cm to 15cm. This allows for very short range scenarios such as payment, loyalty redemption and ‘check in’ type security applications.

Sensoro and Standard Eddystone

Sensoro have very recently changed the way they enable Standard Eddystone. First, an explanation of Standard Eddystone. This is when a beacon supports Google’s Eddystone Configuration GATT Service. Our previous comments, from the time this service was announced, provide more background information. Instead of Standard Eddystone, most beacons, including Sensoro beacons, have their own custom Bluetooth GATT service that can still support Eddystone (URL, TLM and EID).

The Sensoro configuration app used to have an option to convert the beacon to Standard Eddystone. This was a one way process that caused the beacon to no longer able to be managed by the Sensoro configuration app, disabled iBeacon support and Sensoro’s cloud features. Unfortunately, some of our customers didn’t realise they could use Eddystone with the Sensoro GATT service, saw ‘Switch to Eddystone’ and did the change with a loss of many features. We fed this back to Sensoro and they have listened. They have removed the switch in the configuration app. It’s now performed with a separate app and you can also now switch back to the Sensoro GATT service. The Android version of the Switcher app had a few critical bugs that we have also now resolved with Sensoro.

More details on switching are available in the Sensoro Technical area available to BeaconZone customers.

Can I Set the Maximum Distance that the Beacon Transmits?

We get many questions along the lines of setting the distance a beacon can transmit. This might be to save battery power or to limit the distance at which a beacon can be detected.

Despite some 3rd party platforms and SDKs having settings to set distance, having such a setting is misleading. You can’t set the distance. You can set the transmitted power that affects the transmitted distance. However, as it’s radio and is susceptible to reflections and interference, there’s no way that a particular power can accurately correspond to a particular distance.

If you are detecting beacons in an app you can also use the Received Signal Strength Indicator (RSSI) to filter only those within a particular range. However, again, there’s no way to accurately map RSSI to the actual distance.

Some people ask if it’s possible to set the distance to the order of cm rather than m, much like NFC. This usually isn’t possible as most beacons still transmit of the order of m when set to the minimum power. However, an exception to this is the Sensoro range that have two antennas that provide for what they call micro location. Their app allows you to choose between 12 power levels, the lowest of which indicates a 5cm range. However, as mentioned above, as it’s radio, such things can’t be determined accurately and our tests reported a 10cm range.

We have an article on Choosing the Transmitted Power.

New Sensoro IoT Alpha Range

Sensoro have added some new IoT related devices to their existing range of beacons. The new Alpha range consists of a Space Node-4AA beacon, a Base Station and new Commander software:

sensoroiot

The Space Node-4AA talks to the Base Station via a long range (5Km) low power WAN. Each Base station can support thousands of Space Node-4AA nodes:

sensoroalphabasestation

The nodes have temperature, humidity, accelerometer and ambient light sensors and work as iBeacon/eddystone beacons with a range of up to 80m:

node-4aa

The commander software provides for sensing, monitoring and remote device management:

sensorocommander

We will stock the Alpha range in due course.

Why Doesn’t the Web Bluetooth Configuration Page Work?

The Physical Web project has a web page where they invite you to use a web page to configure your Eddystone beacon. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work for most beacons. The reason is because it assumes your beacon conforms to the new Eddystone Configuration GATT Service that became available in April 2016. Most beacon firmware pre-dates this so isn’t compatible.

A few manufacturers have added support for the new GATT Service. For example, Sensoro that we stock, can be irrevocably turned into what Sensoro call Standard Eddystone GATT that turns the beacon into a generic Eddystone beacon with no Sensoro (or iBeacon) facilities. Even when we did that, the Web Bluetooth Configuration Page wouldn’t recognise the beacon so we suspect the page doesn’t fully work yet.

In the meantime, if you want to configure a beacon having the Eddystone Configuration GATT Service, the best way is to use the Nordic nRF Connect app that does a great job of recognising and describing and configuring the Eddystone Configuration GATT Services.

One Person’s Beacon Hijacking is Another’s Sharing

We posted something on Twitter last week about beacon networks and how one beacon can have multiple apps from multiple companies. Jan Steffl tweeted:

jansteffltwitterbeaconhijacking

One person’s beacon hijacking is another’s sharing. Some beacon manufacturers, for example Sensoro that we stock, provide (optional) hijacking prevention and use this as a unique selling proposition. In contrast to this, Google’s presentations at Google I/O encouraged the sharing of beacons to enable new senarios and possibilities.

However, if you have gone to the expense of rolling out beacons you might not want others piggybacking on them or a competitor also showing notifications in the same places.

It remains to be seen if ‘private’ or ‘public’ beacon networks will predominate.