6 ways to use BLE beacons for people and asset tracking

Patrick Carne /

As Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacon technologies evolve, we are seeing new and innovative ways to leverage their capability to track people and assets in the workplace. This article explores 6 unique ways that these technologies can be used to work with a number of constraints that arise in different environments.

Beacons exploded onto the scene back in 2013 and gave app developers a new way to understand where users were in a physical space. Beacons were cheap, and BLE technology was adopted by nearly all major smartphones. This provided significant benefits over traditional location technologies such as GPS that drained the smartphone battery and were generally ineffective indoors.

The typical implementation that followed was to mount beacon devices throughout a facility and use this proximity sensor to understand when a user carrying a BLE enabled smartphone was nearby. Whilst this setup enables proximity based triggering of processes and interactions, a key challenge is that it requires all employees to carry a smartphone with them.

As beacons are now being used for more diverse use cases such as asset and people tracking, a range of new approaches and implementations of this technology are being employed. In this article, I will explain each approach in detail below, and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

1. The most common approach: Fixed beacons, roaming mobile devices

As shown in the diagram above, the most common approach to utilizing beacons is to mount them to a permanent fixture (typically to the ceiling or walls) and have a mobile app continuously scan for beacons nearby. When the mobile device detects a beacon, it can trigger an experience in the app based on the user's location, or simply record the interaction for analytical purposes.

Real world examples:

  • Real-time tracking of security guards as they complete check-points throughout a facility

  • Tracking of routes taken and heavily used areas within an underground mine

  • Triggering of alerts or safety content on a construction site when a user enters a high-risk area

  • Quickly locate doctors or nurses within a hospital during an emergency situation


Advantages:

  • Easy to implement, no costly wiring or installation required

  • Leverages existing smartphone devices

  • Cost effective way to identify many different areas or 'zones'

  • Persistent location tracking even when smartphone is asleep or the app is running in the background


Disadvantages:

  • Can only be used to track mobile devices

  • Requires all users to install a mobile application


2. Asset proximity detection: Roaming mobile devices, roaming asset beacons

In addition to using beacons to understand when a user is nearby a physical location, they can also be used to understand when a user is nearby an asset or physical object. By 'tagging' assets with a beacon, you can trigger processes or interactions when a user carrying an app comes in range.

Real world examples:

  • Prompt safety or instructional content when a warehouse worker comes in range of dangerous or complex equipment

  • Record the last person to use a vehicle or piece of heavy machinery within a mine, and provide a complete audit history of equipment usage

  • Track utilization of company vehicles and equipment

  • Quickly count nearby assets in a manufacturing plant, and track asset movement between locations


Advantages:

  • No deployment of hardware infrastructure required

  • Quickly read nearby assets without requiring individual scanning (unlike passive RFID tags)

  • Provide contextual information relating to nearby objects

  • Automatically record interactions between users and assets


Disadvantages:

  • Cannot provide location awareness without additional sensors or inputs

  • Requires all users to install mobile application


3. Asset location tracking: Fixed BLE receivers, roaming asset beacons

One of the use cases that beacons have more recently been adopted for is asset tracking. In certain scenarios, this technology provides significant benefits over traditional tracking technologies such as RFID and has fueled the development of BLE receivers. These devices are mounted to permanent fixtures, and continuously monitor the environment for beacons or other BLE signals. When a tagged asset is nearby, the BLE receiver broadcasts this information back to a cloud service via WiFi or cellular data.

Real world examples:

  • Real-time tracking of all equipment and critical machinery within a hospital

  • Tracking vehicles as they enter and leave a property or designated area

  • Understand where all workers are within a mine by providing staff with BLE-enabled CapLamps
  • Monitor inpatients within a hospital using BLE-enabled wrist-bands

  • Track the movement of materials within a manufacturing warehouse

  • Track the location of luggage trolleys within an airport and provide alerts when they leave a designated area


Advantages:

  • Does not require mobile application

  • Automatically track the location of thousands of assets in real-time

  • Hard-wired BLE receivers do not rely on battery power and can provide more frequent readings

  • Rough trilateration and two-dimensional positioning possible with multiple receivers


Disadvantages:

  • Requires mounting where power is available

  • Requires stable WiFi or cellular data

  • Higher installation and hardware costs


4. The piggy-back approach: Fixed beacons, roaming mobile devices and roaming asset beacons

In some instances, there is a desire to track the location of assets within a workplace, but it is not practical and/or possible to mount permanent (wired) BLE receivers. This makes asset tracking hard as there is no device present to detect the location of assets and broker this information back to a cloud service. This can be overcome by 'piggy-backing' off the location of a mobile device. Similar to approach (1) above, beacons are deployed throughout a facility and a mobile app is installed to continuously monitor the location of each device. By tagging assets with beacons, the mobile app can detect assets that are nearby, and assign them to the same location as the device based on the nearby fixed beacons.

Real world examples:

  • Real-time tracking of vehicles and equipment in an underground mine where fixed power is unavailable

  • Tracking of equipment and visitors with BLE-enabled lanyards in an office environment

  • Tracking of equipment in temporary environments such as festivals and conferences


Advantages:

  • Easy to implement, no costly wiring or installation required

  • Tracking of both users and assets without requirement for additional hardware


Disadvantages:

  • Update of asset location dependent on presence of mobile device and app

  • Moving mobile devices can cause reduced accuracy of asset location


5. The hybrid approach: Fixed beacons and BLE receivers, roaming mobile devices and roaming asset beacons

A hybrid approach can be taken to combine the benefits of both fixed beacons and fixed receivers. This works well in environments where device coverage is limited and needs to be augmented with additional receivers. The diagram above illustrates this setup, whereby the location of the forklift is detected by both the wall-mounted BLE receiver, as well as the user carrying a mobile device.

Real world examples:

  • Tracking of people and assets within a hospital environment, where additional receivers are mounted to storage centres for continuous monitoring of assets in low-traffic areas.

  • Tracking of trolleys within an airport whereby BLE receivers provide location data at docking bays and worker devices provide location updates throughout the airport and in carparks


Advantages:

  • Track users and assets with greater accuracy

  • Maximize coverage and efficiency of deployment, whilst minimizing hardware cost

  • Increase the number of BLE receivers over time as you find spots where mobile users are not active


Disadvantages:

  • Cost of setup and deployment


6. Combining Location Technologies: Augmenting a BLE solution with GPS, Geo-fencing or WiFi

Bluetooth Low Energy provides some fantastic benefits for tracking people and assets indoors, and a number of examples have been provided above as to how this technology can be leveraged. However, there are still benefits in combining this technology with more traditional location services such as GPS, Geo-fencing or WiFi. Beacons attached to assets can simply be used as a means to identify objects, and then leverage additional mobile location technologies to add the location context. In the example above, the mobile device receives its coordinates via GPS, and can then attach these same coordinates to the digger based on its proximity to the beacon.

Real world examples:

  • Track heavy machinery and trucks that have moved from underground to outdoor environment

  • Track the location of assets on a construction site

  • Monitor the location of mobile workers only during travel by attaching a beacon to the inside of the vehicle

  • Track the location of assets within an office building using WiFi-enabled user tracking, and beacons for asset tagging


Advantages:

  • Take advantage of existing location services, whilst using beacons to tag nearby devices

  • Move seamlessly from indoor to outdoor environments

  • Minimize battery drain by only using location services when required


Disadvantages:

  • Dependency on mobile application on devices


If you're interested in learning how Lighthouse.io can use these technologies to give your business more visibility over its people and assets:


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