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The Basics of Developing Bluetooth Beacons

Telink Staff

November 13, 2020

Applications

Here’s what product developers need to know about building Bluetooth beacons, from how they work to the beaconing protocols with which they should be familiar.

Thanks to the widespread adoption of smartphones and the demand for more personalized customer experiences, the beacon technology market has seen explosive growth. According to recent research from Global Market Insights, the beacon technology market is expected to exceed $25 billion by 2024 — only 11 years after Apple debuted the first beacon standard.

Bluetooth beacons are versatile solutions with applications in retail, marketing, transportation, and even the medical industry. Savvy product developers can tap into this growing industry by including beacons in their new designs — here’s how.

The Benefits of Beacons

A beacon is a small, wireless, battery-operated device that uses Bluetooth LE technology to transmit signals to nearby smart devices. Beacons typically communicate with devices in one of two ways. In the first, a beacon is attached to a fixed location and routinely emits a unique identifier. A user’s smartphone then picks up that identifier when it comes within range of the beacon, and the beacon executes the function it was programmed to perform. In the second, a fixed wireless node monitors the beacons in or on devices that pass through its proximity. Location-based monitoring makes geographically limited searches, interactions, and alerts more accurate and easier to execute.

Beacon technology has numerous benefits — most notably user and asset tracking. Retailers, for instance, can use in-store beacons to alert their returning customers to sales or to offer them discounts as they browse for items. Marketers can also use the user data gathered from beacons to launch targeted ad campaigns and track how effective their online advertising efforts are at driving in-person traffic. Additionally, retailers can use beacons to monitor and track big ticket items like expensive speakers. They can “check in” on the product from anywhere in the store, make sure that floating items are returned to their proper locations, and easily monitor inventory.

Outside retail and marketing, beacons also help make the world a little safer. Bluetooth beacons are more accurate than other proximity technologies like GPS or WiFi, so developers for smart cities can use them to more precisely pinpoint locations and hotspots on the street. A beacon affixed to a light pole can help lost pedestrians get home safely by pointing them to the nearest subway station. Beacons can also help them determine exactly where they are on a map.

How Do Bluetooth Beacons Work?

Bluetooth beacons work by transmitting an identifier to other devices in the vicinity. The way two BLE devices transfer data back and forth is defined by their Bluetooth Generic Attribute Profile (GATT). Each GATT profile’s service is distinguishable by a universally unique identifier (UUID), and when a beacon needs to advertise a particular service, it broadcasts the UUID in the device’s advertising packet. The receiving device picks up the UUID, registers it, and takes the appropriate follow-up actions.

The two most prominent beaconing protocols on the market are iBeacon and Eddystone. These protocols are developed by industry leaders and adopted by those who want to use the technology, meaning beacon developers should be sure to familiarize themselves with these protocols.

Apple’s iBeacon is one of the original beaconing technologies and fully trademarked by Apple — developers must be sure to obtain the proper license before use. iOS monitoring is constantly running and can even cause closed apps to open, something developers should take into account when using iBeacon. Google’s Eddystone is open-source and supports both iOS and Android. It is one of the few beaconing protocols that defines varying frame types that can be used either individually or in combination.

Key Considerations for Designing a Beacon Product

The technology behind Bluetooth beacons is fairly straight-forward, but developing and designing a beacon is no easy task. Here are some key considerations developers should keep in mind when plotting out their next project.

  • Hardware: Beacons can be implemented using a wireless SoC or a module with a battery and a mechanical enclosure. A pre-certified module offers faster time to market, but a custom-made SoC solution is often smaller, more affordable, and more functional. Further, developers opting for an embedded beacon should consider how additional sensors for temperature or light might interface directly with the SoC.
  • Software: A beacon will spend 99 percent of its life in sleep mode, so developers must ensure their Bluetooth LE stack can efficiently manage sleep modes. Developers should look for protocols that include features specially designed for efficiency, like watchdog timers, on/off cycles that preserve power, and the ability to support firmware updates.
  • Beacon Application Code: A simple, readable, high-level programming language is usually the best option for a Bluetooth Beacon. This type of code allows the developer to focus on the application instead of the complexities of the underlying protocol stack.

Since many people believe that beacons “track their every move,” developers must also be prepared to answer customer concerns about data privacy and security. Beacons are traditionally one-way devices that broadcast data and don’t collect it, but they do allow a smartphone to know when it’s near a beacon or to access information about the location of said beacon. This is essentially the same as a smartphone pinging off of a cell tower or using GPS location services. When debuting their new product with a beacon, developers should educate users and dispel certain myths about how beacons interact with data.

Develop Beacons with the Best

Bluetooth beacon technology is still emerging but it has already shown a lot of promise, and developers in numerous industries can benefit by taking advantage of this opportunity. Telink chips are an excellent choice for Bluetooth beacons — they offer the performance, reliability, and scale that product developers value. Our SoCs are small enough to fit any application, energy-efficient enough to keep costs down, and powered by a tried-and-tested Bluetooth LE stack. With Telink chips, you get a high-quality chip and performance you can trust.

Telink also offers resources specifically for developers, like testing guides, development tools, datasheets, and more. If you can’t find what you need in our existing resources, you can ask a question in one of our forums or contact the sales team for a more in-depth conversation.

For more information about our protocols and applications, contact us today.