For my diploma I am doing a paper about BLE beacons so this project page will serve as an introduction for future posts I might write about this subject.
First of all, what does the IoT stands for in the title. IoT is an abbreviation for the term Internet of Things. This term is sometimes used loosely but generaly it means a family of technologies emerging mostly in the past decades. Just to name some of them: RFID (radio-frequency identification), NFC (near field communication), BLE (bluetooth low energy), etc. These are all technologies used for interconnectivity of (mobil) devices. You have probably used some of them even if you didn’t know. For example, RFID is used by most ski resorts to validate your ski pass. Basicly, there is a RFID circuit inside the pass card which is then read by inducing energy and data using an EM field. Another example of an IoT technology is the NFC. It is used for things like authenticating mobile phones before sending data (an image for example) or for credit cards as a mode of payment (you don’t swipe your crard through a reader, but instead you put your card on a NFC device (mostly used for small payments). Our faculty uses NFC for unlocking/locking doors of lecture rooms and cabinets. These are just few examples, but these technologies are used in many other segments, like automotive and farmaceutical industries.
The core technology that will be described on this page is BLE or Bluetooth Low Energy (sometimes Bluetooth Smart, even tho it is not exactly the same). A couple of years ago, SIG (Bluetooth Special Interest Group) launched an overhaul of the bluetooth standard with the version 4.0 which inclueds protocols for low energy device communication – the BLE. Its aim is to provide a standard for sending data using as little energy as possible. Because of the low power consumption, this standard is used for sending/receiving only a few bytes of data at a time. It is not meant to be used for sharing images/video and other types of data like that. You would ask where would we need this? It turns out there are a lot of industries that would benefit from such a technology. The most prominent is healthcare. Patient monitoring has always been dificult because if you wanted a wireless sensor network you would need a lot of power and constant battery charging and if you wired the patient, the mobility and treatments were difficult. Another example would be how to locate someone/something indoors. As you know, GPS needs a clear line of sight between the device and the sattelite array. Using beacons (small BLE devices that emmit a low power bluetooth signal) you could locate a phone if it gets near. With an enough large beacon network, you could pinpoint exactly where the user is located. For my paper I am doing exactly that. The idea is to strap a smartwatch or phone on a patient at home so a caregiver can monitor him without being present. Nowdays this is a big problem because there are not nearly enough personel to constantly watch patients at home. If for example an elder with dementia would wander off the premises noone would know, if that patient is home alone. With a beacon positioned outside the entrance you could detect his position and raise an alarm so that a caregiver can imediately come and help the patient. Or if for example you put a beacon in the bathroom and the phone detects that the patient is in there for too long, there is a big chance that something is wrong (maybe he fell in the bathtube) you could again raise an alarm and actions can be taken. Also, more advanced utilsations of BLE could be possible. In recent years, a lot of scientific papers emerged describing various BLE sensor networks. A doctor could attach a portable ECG monitor or a glucose sensor on the patient and transmit this data over BLE to a central unit in the house/hospital which would allow to monitor and record the patient status in real time, even if the patient is at home.
There are also lots of marketing companies interested in this technology. Some store were equiped with beacons at points of interest and a consumer with an appropriate app on his/her phone could receive notifications when approaching it. For example, a beacon is positioned in a shoe store and you approach a stall. A notification then pops up with information about a sale or deal. Also there are ideas of using beacon networks to guide people in airport facilities or other big and confusing establishments.
Because BLE is becoming more and more popular, big companies are developing other standards upon the core bluetooth stack to facilitate the developement of aplications. One of these is the iBeacon protocol developed by Apple. It is not a new bluetooth standard, it just presents the developer with a more intuitive (but limited) way of communicating with these beacons. It hides a lot of protocol related concepts to facilitate the developement. Apple integrated the iBeacon so that anyone can develope apps with their swift or objectiveC framework as long as you use an iPhone 4s or newer, because older models lack the BLE chip. For android you would need a BLE compatible device (nowdays I beleive all of theme have the BLE transciver) and the Android 4.3 or newer. Because the iBeacon came from Apple, you would need an outside library for Android or you can use other similar standards. For other devices like phones with Windows OS I can’t comment because I never developed BLE apps on theme. I would assume there is support for this standard since it came out around 5 or 6 years ago.
If you would like to know more in detail how BLE works I’ll leave a couple of links below because it is out of the scope of this article.