Sensory Overload: BLE Indoor Positioning Systems

By Claire Swedberg | Mar 15, 2017




Just as building intelligence systems draw information about a building’s environment to help manage the facility’s efficiency and comfort, a low-cost sensor system is piggybacking on that trend, and it offers new opportunities for contractors.

Indoor positioning systems that use Bluetooth low energy (BLE) are installed in nearly every kind of public and non-public location today, including malls, offices, stadiums and hospitals. The technology is affordable, easy to install and can be hosted on a cloud-based server, sparing building owners from bringing their IT department into the mix.

This has led to its rapid adoption. Most recently, the construction industry is getting in on the action as well.

BLE is the enabling technology to locate people and things both indoors and outdoors. It grew out of a 2013 Apple release of its iBeacon protocol to transmit to Bluetooth-enabled iOS phones. The technology also works with Android and Windows operating systems.

According to global analyst company ABI Research, BLE beacons will sell at about 60 million units globally each year for retail, smart homes and beyond by 2019. Since the iBeacon release, new companies have been developing their own BLE beacon devices to broadcast an identity to phones or receivers to meet the growing appetite for indoor positioning.

A variety of technology companies and solution providers are designing app-based systems for use in airports, to offer security line info and wayfinding; healthcare facilities, to help patients and physicians understand the traffic flow and how it affects appointments; and museums, stores and warehouses, with the ability to identify where people are based on their smartphone or tablet, and provide them content or simply collect analytics accordingly.

For ECs and integrators, the indoor location technology is a revenue source and a tool.

For starters, the technology needs qualified installers and integrators. In some cases, BLE is being installed as part of an improvement or renovation in existing buildings, and it is being specified into new construction. In both applications, the primary goal is tracking traffic flow.

For example, Bluetooth beacons are being installed to track the movement of people even before the building is occupied. In this application, beacons provide an understanding of how offices and conference rooms are—or will be—occupied as well as where and when traffic flows lightly or heavily. This is captured by tracking mobile phones. Assuming there is an app that individuals download, the systems can also identify who is in what location and for how long. In construction, that means understanding the presence of subcontractors. In a finished building, the same technology can be used for tracking when security guards move through the building at night, how long housekeeping spends in each room, and whether a conference room is being used at all, or if it should be assigned to a new purpose.

Indoor location company Bluvision, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has customers who use its beacon technology for building design and architecture of large corporate spaces to enable analysis about how work spaces are used early on. John Sailer, Bluvision COO and senior vice president of sales and marketing, said that adds value for customers who could use the technology to manage their workspace. The workforce-optimization-use case for beacons is in its early stages, but it is providing enough benefit that the trend is growing among building managers and occupants.

Bluvision’s installations typically consist of the company’s BluFi Bluetooth to Wi-Fi gateways that literally plug into outlets to enable the capture of historical tracking data, tagged items and people. Once they are plugged in, technicians commission the beacons and create locations for the gateways.

Getting the technology in place during construction can benefit the construction crews as well as the owners and eventual occupants.

New builds already come prewired for capabilities such as audio, video, Wi-Fi connections and other services, so the installation of Bluetooth beacons is not a far cry from existing trends, Sailer said.

Project management automated

During construction, some general contractors and building owners have begun using beacons to better manage 
construction-workforce movement as well as the location and status of equipment and supplies.

The technology helps site supervisors and project managers understand where their subs are located and ensure they don’t venture to places where they aren’t authorized to be.

“This helps address safety and security issues,” Sailer said.

By providing beacon tags to each worker, managers can ensure that the right workers are in the right places, as well as monitor dangerous areas and even understand what happened in an accident. These kinds of installations also have implications when it comes to insurance, cycle counts and reducing construction costs.

“All contractors and service providers are, or should be, thinking about this technology,” Sailer said.

It is low cost, easy to install and provides a variety of benefits depending on the application.

“What’s interesting is the trajectory of adoption you’re seeing in other industries,” he said. 

This typically leads into the construction industry. Some distributors are now experimenting with beacon technology to enable the tracking of assets while on work sites. For example, some electrical distributors are testing BLE to track their own inventory. By attaching beacons to their inventory and installing a few beacon gateways around a work site, they can understand how inventory is used and when replenishment is needed.

Other uses

Dozens of startup companies have been incorporated in recent years to offer different beacon-based use cases. For instance, beacon technology by Boston-based startup Cuseum is used in museums to provide information such as exhibit details or wayfinding to visitors. That simply requires the installation of beacons, an app on users’ phones and software managing the data on a hosted server. More than 100 museums are using Cuseum’s platform, said Brendan Ciecko, company CEO and founder, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, N.C.

Beacons are also being used for asset tracking, since the cost is becoming low enough that they can be attached to equipment such as crash carts in hospitals or tools in a factory. They can be ruggedized and, in some cases, come with accelerometers so that they can detect when they are moving and wake up from a dormant mode, thereby saving battery life.

Navigation and asset tracking

Proximity technology company Radius Networks, Washington, D.C., also sees benefits for contractors both as installers and users. The company focuses on enterprise solutions, as well as providing beacons and services installed at restaurants, stadiums, retail and other use cases in which large number of people may come and go. Marc Wallace, company cofounder and CEO, said the BLE company has been quite busy in the past year. 

In the first few years of its operation, the company was working with “a lot of partners and customers using the technology for messaging and advertising,” Wallace said.

For example, as an individual with an app downloaded on his or her phone walked past a beacon, the phone received a message about a sales promotion or coupon.

Now, it’s more about navigation, asset tracking and a continuing stream of new applications.

The company’s technology is intended to fill a gap between GPS and near-field communication (NFC) radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology. GPS provides users with location-based data on phones, but only within a few city blocks, and isn’t much help in indoor locations.

NFC and other RFID technology can provide very precise data using radio waves—down to the centimeters in some cases—but can require a complex wired infrastructure that is expensive to install and maintain and often, in the case of NFC, requires a user to specifically place a tag or mobile device somewhere near a reader for it to be recognized.

That’s where BLE beacons come in, since they don’t require specific actions by users and can be installed at a reasonable price to track individuals within a 10-square-foot area or within a room, for example.

Restaurants are beginning to use the technology to locate customers as they seat themselves. An individual downloads a restaurant app, and places an order. Then, beacons installed in the restaurant identify the location of that individual down to the table where he or she is sitting so wait staff can deliver their order.

For warehouses or construction sites, a notice can be sent to workers, based on their location. For instance, users can be informed they have just entered a hard-hat zone. Some installations are still just pilots, but the work increasingly consists of permanent installations, Wallace said.

All of this means potential revenue for contractors to install such systems and get them into operation. Beacons still require power. In some cases, they are battery-powered, but that requires the effort of battery replacement. Plugging them into outlets confines where they can be installed. Pulling cable to wire them to their power source is another option, but that’s typically only realistic with new construction.

In most cases, Wallace said, the preference for users is power over ethernet running Cat 5 or Cat 6 cable to power the beacons and supply them with the internet connection needed to get location data sent back to a server efficiently.

“[Such an installation] is a big job that requires a lot of technicians,” Wallace said.

Therefore, many of his company’s employees are low-voltage installers.

About The Author

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at [email protected].





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