Can USB Beacons Receive Beacon Transmissions?

You might wonder whether USB beacons can be used to enable desktops/laptops or any USB device to receive beacon transmissions.

USB beacons don’t work this way and only use the USB connection for power. A few such as the Minew U1 have UART USB serial support that can be used to control the beacon but it still doesn’t detect beacons. It beacon only sends and doesn’t receive.

U1 UART Beacon

What you need is a ‘Sniffer’ such as the ABSniffer 528. It scans for Bluetooth devices and sends the data via USB to the device powering it.

ABSniffer 528

Alternatively, look for a standard Bluetooth dongle that that supports Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) and an associated programming API for ESP32, Raspberry Pi, Windows or Linux.

USB Beacons for Fixed Installations

Beacons are often placed in shops, offices and other buildings for detection in smartphone apps. Battery powered beacons last from months to years depending on the size of the battery and the transmission power (adjustable). The compromise between battery life and physical range can be avoided if USB beacons are used instead.

USB beacons are powered from an available wallsocket, laptop, desktop or other standard USB socket. Alternatively, they can be powered using an inexpensive mains charger used to charge a smartphone or other device. Powering from the mains allows the beacon to be permanently set to full power with no worry about checking or changing the battery.

The use of mains power also allows for use of specialist beacons that output the maximium legally allowed (Class 1) power that wouldn’t be feasible using battery power.

The FSC-BP109 can be received up to 1000m on Android and 4000m on iOS.

View USB beacons

Beacons in Shopping Malls

Mr Beacon has an informative new video interview with Janette Smrcka, Information Technology Director at Mall of America. They use beacons to allow visitors to navigate across 520 stores on 5 levels, spanning 4.3 miles and over 5.6 million square feet.

Watch the video to learn about WiFi vs Bluetooth wayfinding and the advantages of mains as opposed to battery powered beacons. You will also learn how Mall of America’s beacon network might eventually be used to track mall assets and for location-based site maintenance.

YJ-17076 USB UART Beacon in Stock

We have the new YJ-17076 USB UART Beacon in Stock. This beacon has been designed for IoT applications in that it includes a USB to UART chip and uses the NRF52832 that has lots of spare memory for use in more ambitious applications other than just advertising.

The CP2104 USB to UART chip allows you to  create solutions that connect to other devices (desktop, laptop, single board computers) via USB to receive or send UART commands.

This beacon comes disassembled for ease of programming:

The Nordic NRF52832 chip can be re-programmed using Nordic tools and software to implement, for example, custom advertising schemes, custom Bluetooth services or Bluetooth mesh.

Minew USB UART Beacon in Stock

We have a selection of beacons that are powered from USB. However, up until now, very few of them have been controllable via USB.

We now stock the Minew U1 that has a CP2104 USB Serial converter that causes the device to show as a serial COM port device. This allows you to control it from other devices such as PCs, laptops, Linux or Android, as well as from the iOS/Android apps.

Why might you want to do this? Scenarios such as use with digital signage and video walls in shopping malls and stadiums sometimes need the beacon advertising to change in real-time as the display information changes. UART connected beacons allows the beacon advertising to be changed by the host device.

Non Battery Beacons

The batteries in the beacons we sell can last from months up to 7+ years depending on the beacon, battery size and type.

While the latest power efficient SoC beacons can make more of the available battery power you might want to consider not using batteries at all so as to ease maintenance.

Our USB powered beacons run from any USB socket and can be plugged into other hardware such as desktops or used with any inexpensive plug-in mains USB power supply available for a few pound/dollars/euros. However, as mentioned in a previous article, the location of the antenna so close to the desktop or power supply can cause the range and Bluetooth radio signal spread to be compromised. Look out for beacons that solve these problems by using an external dipole antenna.

The Bluetooth (Class 1) standard has a maximum output power of 20dBm. (Read our article for explanation of power). Many beacons don’t use this maximum as it would quickly flatten the battery. Most only allow up to +4dBm, +6dBm or +8dBm. In most cases battery beacons are set to operate at 0dBm. An advantage of USB powered beacons is that they can emit more power than is practical with a battery. For example, the iB005N-SMA reaches up to 130m. Watch this space for a USB beacon, coming in the next few weeks, that will have a range in the order of km rather than m.

Back to battery-based beacons, if you still need to use them, you can optimise battery use by using the right beacon settings and by measuring real-use battery drain. If you need help, consider a feasibility study.

RF Star Beacons in Stock

We now have the RF Star range of beacons in stock. RF Star was one of the first companies to manufacture Bluetooth LE beacons and is a Texas Instruments IDH (Independent Design House).

We have the small RF-SM-S01 and even smaller RF-SM-S02 modules as well as the Beacon Box and Beacon Dongle:


Beacon Box

Beacon Dongle

These beacons provide Bluetooth GATT Services/characteristics to change the iBeacon name, UUID, major, minor, broadcast interval, power, connectable, on and off times. Settings can be changed using generic apps such as Nordic nRF Connect (on iOS and Android) and LightBlue Explorer (on iOS).

Beacons and Vending Machines

We are seeing an increasing interest in using beacons in vending machines. This is probably driven by Coca-Cola’s recent partnership with Signal360.

Beacons not only provide the opportunity for easier purchasing, via apps, from vending machines but also facilitate reward programmes and targeted contextual content based on the user’s location.

Vending machine companies contacting us are asking the usual questions regarding range and size. However, a more specific requirement is the ability to be mains powered. One way to achieve this is to use a smartphone-type USB mains adapter (offering a standard USB socket) and a USB beacon. Alternatively, the vending machine hardware might already have, or be able to be fitted with, a USB slot.

Inside the PC028-E USB Beacon

The PC028-E beacon is so light, weighs only 3g and with the case on feels like there’s nothing inside. Opening the case, here’s what’s inside:


You can see the TI CC2541 in the middle and antenna at the right hand side. The USB connections, only used for power, are labelled on the PCB. You could actually solder power wires onto them and use the pcb as a module in a larger project.

This is our least expensive USB beacon that supports Eddystone.