Why BLE beacons won’t save the IoT

Part 2 of our series from the creators of Inlo covers Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacon technology. This is by far the frontrunner of technologies presented as a solution for local indoor positioning systems. Here we explain its current state and how it fails to meet the needs of the IoT.

 

The IoT is doomed if we rely on the BLE protocol to create local positioning systems necessary in the smart home and greater IoT. Yet, we see Apple and Google as early adopters of BLE with iBeacon and Eddystone. These behemoths have put years and effort into these technologies, but they have gone nowhere. Have you seen iBeacons used anywhere?

 

First off, BLE does not offer a mesh network, meaning BLE beacon nodes do not talk to each other. Some technologists out there like to believe that BLE can mesh, but it simply does not and likely will not. The only chance BLE/Bluetooth has at meshing rests in a flooding technique to relay messages between nodes instead of a routing technique.

 

A flood network is not an efficient mesh network and presents massive scaling problems. The word “flood” is key here. A network that relies on flooding creates a noisy environment when there are more than two nodes in a given space. Volumes of data are lost. Robustness to handle larger connected environments is also doubtful.

 

The BLE beacon approach uses the smartphone as the server, so when a phone walks into a room it receives all these beacon signals that are in proximity and handles them accordingly. This lacks a constant real-time connection between the smartphone and the BLE beacon network. BLE/WiFi bridges offer a quasi solution, but bridges have their own problem, which merit an entirely new post. Because it is not a routing network and is only a star network a BLE bridge acts more like a sniffer. Mesh networks on the other hand handle this with techniques like border routers so you can control and send messages through whole network.

 

BLE beacon systems are not the greatest at accuracy and usually only give a couple meters of precision i.e. room-level precision. BLE beacons represent a proximity system that can tell you whether you are close to something, but that’s it. That’s not good enough to create smarter connected, responsive environments. The IoT needs a precise, accurate local indoor positioning system, but BLE beacons may not be able to provide it.

 

Because BLE beacons rely on the smartphone for processing, managing other devices or assets in an environment could be taxing on the smartphone. An environment with many devices or assets would take up all of the bandwidth of the BLE beacons to receive positioning or presence information. When setting up a BLE beacon system that can do asset management, there is a tradeoff because a system cannot do both asset management and tracking of people.

 

BLE beacon systems only works with Bluetooth, yet many other standards exist in the smart home and IoT. Some of these standards have real mesh networks, and yet all of these are excluded from BLE beaconing. There are Zigbee devices, Zigbee dongles, BLE findables, BLE devices, Thread devices, Contiki devices, and tons more. A smart home can have a mixed environment of these devices, rendering a BLE beacon system for local/indoor positioning kind of useless. Ultimately, a connected environment needs an interoperable local/indoor positioning system.

 

Although BLE has become a popular technology used by mobile apps, smart home devices, speakers and more, it is a protocol that is being forced to do something it was not meant to do: be the GPS for indoors. Yes, Apple and Google have tried to make beacon technology a “thing” but it just does not have what it takes. If you want a local/indoor positioning system for your smart home (or anywhere else), you’ll have to assess its meshing capabilities, how the nodes talk to each other, if the network is aware of other devices around it, and, finally, if it can easily, accurately, and reliably find you.