Learn more about Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and how this flexible, efficient, and omnipresent radio-frequency technology can be used to detect location and power a multitude of indoor positioning and location-based IoT applications.
What is BLE?
Bluetooth Low Energy, or BLE, is a radio-frequency (RF) technology for wireless communication that can be leveraged to detect and track the location of people, devices, and assets for many indoor positioning use cases - including asset tracking, indoor navigation, proximity services and more. Incredibly widespread and accessible, Bluetooth is a technology prevalent throughout indoor spaces and supported by so many of today’s devices. Like other communication protocols including Wi-Fi and UWB, BLE can be used to transmit data between devices using radio waves.
Released in 2010, BLE 4.0 was the successor to the previous generation versions of Bluetooth Classic, and was created to consume very low power, significantly less than that of Bluetooth Classic versions and other RF standards. This energy-efficient design set the stage for the emergence of new Bluetooth technologies, including further integration into smartphones and other wireless devices, the development of wearables and various IoT devices, and the adoption of battery-powered BLE beacons.
The Evolution of BLE Technology
The growth of BLE technology brought fundamental change to the global Bluetooth ecosystem. A whole suite of Bluetooth-enabled devices entered indoor spaces, many of which now represent the over 8 billion Bluetooth devices worldwide. New Bluetooth compatible infrastructures and tools unlocked innovative location-aware capabilities.
Many new BLE technologies emerged following the 2013 release of the world’s first beacon communication protocol, Apple’s iBeacon. iBeacon made it possible for physical beacons to communicate with wireless devices in close proximity, working with both iOS and Android applications. In 2015, Google launched their beacon protocol, Eddystone, designed with openness and interoperability in mind. These two leading beacon protocols and the many physical beacon offerings they are used with, along with the utilization of other BLE technologies such as location tracking sensors and tags, have enabled a wide array of indoor positioning and location services applications, transforming the way people and devices can interact with indoor spaces.
These technologies and the overall Bluetooth communication protocol, are seeing continued advancement. In 2016, a new version of Bluetooth was introduced, Bluetooth 5.0. Building on BLE 4.0, this new version allows for communication over higher data rates and longer ranges. Announced in 2019, the Bluetooth 5.1 release is poised to bring enhanced abilities that will lead to more precise location detection via direction finding (DF), which can deliver centimeter level accuracy.
BLE has unique characteristics that have made it one of the most popular RF technologies for indoor positioning. BLE has a large presence in wireless devices, an extensive set of low-power, low-cost, and easy to implement hardware options, and the flexibility to be used in many location-based applications.
What are BLE Beacons?
BLE beacons are small, versatile, and low-power Bluetooth transmitters that can be detected by wireless devices like BLE-enabled smartphones. Beacons can be deployed in fixed positions, such as mounted on walls or structures, or placed on mobile assets, to provide location references for indoor positioning applications. This supports bring-your-own-device (BYOD) concepts, allowing anyone to interact with a BLE-enabled application using their smartphone or other embedded devices. BLE beacons can be used to find a device’s location and deliver relevant content, such as documents, videos, apps, and more, or offer guidance concerning the time or location of the user, keeping users informed and engaged.
Beacons broadcast signals on regular intervals that can be detected by other BLE-enabled devices. Location data from the beacons is collected by a BLE device and forwarded to the IPS to determine the device’s location. This can support various location-aware applications and even trigger specific actions.
Beacons come in all shapes and sizes. Many beacons have long-lasting internal batteries that operate over multiple years, or can be powered via a connection like USB. BLE technology is typically cheaper to produce than other RF technologies, resulting in small, low-cost, low-maintenance hardware options that can be tailored for deployments that fit your unique needs. Some beacons go beyond BLE and incorporate additional technologies such as accelerometers or temperature sensors for enhanced results.
Virtual beacons allow organizations to add BLE beacon technology without the need for much extra hardware. With virtual Bluetooth beacons, antennas can be added to compatible Wi-Fi Access Points, and leveraged with additional software tools for various indoor positioning applications.
Many common enterprise-grade Wi-Fi access points now come equipped with BLE technology built-in. This allows organizations to use access points as both beacons and sensors that can detect and locate transmitting BLE devices, without having to establish a secondary set of infrastructure.