A common misconception is that beacons can measure distance. In reality, beacons, with the exception of some specialist social distancing beacons and sensor beacons with an additional distance sensor, are designed to send signals rather than receive them.
Instead, measuring distance happens on the receiving end. Devices such as smartphones are equipped to detect these beacon signals. When a beacon sends out its Bluetooth radio signal, the receiving device knows the received signal strength (RSSI). This RSSI can be used to infer the distance between the beacon and the device.
In the proximity of a few metres, the variation in RSSI is significant enough to deduce the distance with a reasonable degree of accuracy. However, as the distance increases, the variation in RSSI becomes less pronounced. This means that while you can determine if a beacon is close or far away, pinpointing an exact distance becomes challenging.
For example, the iOS programming API, CoreBluetooth, provides classifications for the detected beacon signals. These classifications are ‘immediate’, ‘near’, and ‘far’. They don’t give a precise measurement in metres or feet but rather a general idea of the beacon’s proximity.
In terms of maximum range, depending on the specific beacon, it can be detected from distances up to 50m or even 100m. However, as mentioned earlier, at these longer ranges, the RSSI doesn’t provide a clear indication of exact distance. Instead, it offers a more general sense of whether the beacon is nearer or farther away.