Node Beacon Scanner

If you are developing using Node, there’s a Node.js module, node-beacon-scanner, that allows you to scan Bluetooth beacon packets and parse the packet data.

While Node tends to be associated with Linux, servers and hence web sites, Node can also be used on small single board computers such as the Raspberry Pi. Hence, this module provides an easy way to scan for Beacons and other Bluetooth devices.

The module supports iBeacon and Eddystone and outputs the MAC address, local name, transmit power level, RSSI and the iBeacon/Eddystone specific attributes.

Social Distancing Wearables

Reuters has an interesting article on how elderly homes are turning to wearables for contact tracing. Wearables side step Apple-Google limitations of using apps for social distancing and tracing.

Google limits the utility of smartphone-based systems, while many employers do not let workers carry phones because of security and safety considerations… Wearables that communicate with each other through Bluetooth signals may be more suitable

As we have previously mentioned, the problem with app based detection is that Apple and Google limit what’s possible while at the same time there’s fragmentation of functionality across devices.

Experiments found that companies hoping to reduce costs and hassles by allowing workers to use existing gadgets will face connection challenges because of variances in the devices’ Bluetooth technology

For our Social Distancing Solution we chose to use wearables rather than smartphones as sensors and for the data aggregation part, the station, we have standardised on one rugged Android device.

In this way we and our customers aren’t battling a myriad of support problems related to fragmented Bluetooth functionality.

Bluetooth Detection Range

The BBC has an article on Coronavirus: Why are there doubts over contact-tracing apps? It says:

But critics warn this kind of system would be imprecise since some phones detect signals from up to 30m (98ft) away without being able to determine the distance.

The BBC took this from information in a Wired article that says:

… but with Bluetooth being able to ping other phones within a 30-metre range, without precision, there’s an increased chance of the app alerting you to false positives of people who have never even come into contact with you

This isn’t correct and misunderstands how the Bluetooth signal is being used. Receiving devices, such as smartphones, don’t just see the beacon signal but also have a received signal strength (RSSI) that can be used to infer distance. Our post on testing if a beacon is working explains and shows this value in the nRF Connect app running on Android.

While not fake news, the BBC and Wired are providing incorrect information. In these times, in the rush and panic, too many things are being written that aren’t thoroughly researched.

Apple/Google Contact Tracing

In the few days since we wrote about contact tracing using Bluetooth, Apple and Google have announced their contact tracing technology and some of the press are already saying this is the way out of the crisis.

What Is It?

The Apple/Google contact tracing is a new variant of standard Bluetooth advertising using ephemeral (changing) encrypted identifiers that identify people. Users retain anonymity up to the point of notifying infection. Decryption is achieved using keys uploaded to a central server.

In practical terms it’s a new API, to be provided in May, by Apple and Google and used in public health authorities’ apps. In time, it will be in-built functionality in iOS and Android to provide a ‘more robust’ solution. However, we all know most Android OEMs don’t upgrade their forks of Android so the more robust Android solution will have limited rollout.

What’s New?

If implemented properly it has the potential to solve the technical issues we mentioned in our previous post. More specifically, there’s potential to solve the problems of background processing and ease the permissions limitations on iOS and Android when advertising Bluetooth and scanning (receiving) Bluetooth. The solution also has the potential to track contacts across countries.

The Behavioural Unknowns

It’s unknown how many people would install such an app, how many would notify infection and how people might act when notified they have been in contact with infected person. Governments will need to incentivise take up.

The Challenges

Moxie Marlinspike and LightBlueTouchPaper have commented on how the system might not be completely anonymous in that it could be combined with other metadata by Apple, Google or Governments. Governments and large tech companies have recently been repeatedly breaking their privacy promises. Also, the delay in testing for the virus means that by the time patients receive test results they might be too sick to operate their phones. The system might also be open to disruption by nefarious parties.

Outcomes

While we know reducing physical contact reduces transmission, we know relatively little about ways of transmission, asymptomatic carriers and immunity. Factors such as these could determine the success or failure of a contact tracing solution and whether this really is the way out of the crisis.

More Reading

Startups, COVID-19 and Venture Capital

Many companies we work with are startups. A very recent survey by NfX shows founders are very worried, the main issues being venture capital drying up and sales declining:

Apart from cost saving actions, it’s interesting many founders are pivoting their product:

Talking to customers, we have seen an increase in the use of beacon technology in health (e.g. calling for help) and logistics (e.g. supermarket asset tracking). The use of technology and IT has the potential to reduce human effort, minimise human to human contact and provide for SOS solutions. Read our recent post on SOS type applications.

Founders are finding many VCs (41.9%) are taking much longer to respond and 15.5% of VC have gone ‘dark’:

All is not lost. Kanso have an Investor COVID19 spreadsheet that lists investors the status of European investors. Many are still accepting pitches and investing.

New Feasycom FSC-BP103

We have a new beacon, the Feasycom FSC-BP103 in stock. It’s a small beacon that transmits up to 10 channels simultaneously that can be Eddystone-UID, Eddystone-URL, iBeacon or AltBeacon.

This beacon uses the newer Texas Instruments CC2640R2F System on a Chip (SoC) that provides a longer battery life. Also, it can be set to advertise at +5dBm that provides a 100m+ range that’s unusual for a small battery beacon.

New Demonstration Video

We have a new demonstration video showing iBeacon and accelerometer sensor beacons, manufacturer setting apps and the raw Bluetooth advertising data in the Nordic nRF Connect app (Nordic is the manufacturer of the main chip in most beacons). The video also shows a Bluetooth-WiFi gateway, it’s setup and sending of advertising data to a server.

Best viewed full screen.

Wiliot Demonstration

We have previously mentioned Wiliot who are producing battery free Bluetooth beacons. They now call them tags to emphasise their use in tagging items. However, beacons and tags are essentially the same thing.

There’s a new demonstration on YouTube:

Wiliot have recently announced Series B funding mainly with partners best placed to help them with rollout.

Early Wiliot tags are expected to be very short range compared to battery beacons but this is expected to improve as the technology is refined. The id of the Wiliot tags is ephemeral which means it changes over time for security reasons. However, this also implies use of a server to ‘decode’ the identification. As with Eddystone EID, this adds latency to local identification and doesn’t work when the server can’t be contacted. Local caching can help but only for as long as the ephemeral id’s ‘life’.

Sensor Beacon Matrix Updated

We offer a range of sensor beacons but what each beacon actually senses or detects is buried deep in the respective beacon descriptions.

As we have recently added new sensor beacons, we have updated our downloadable pdf showing what each beacon can detect.

If you want to know how you might use these beacons, take a look at our articles on Beacon Proximity and Sensing for the Internet of Things (IoT) , Using Bluetooth LE and Using Bluetooth LE Sensors.