SEATTLE—Beacon technology, exemplified by Apple's iBeacon and Google's Eddystone, is typically seen as serving the retail market. Beacon devices continually broadcast a tidbit of information that apps on smartphones can use for micro-location services and to retrieve location-specific notifications from the cloud. But in China and other places around the world, modified beacon technology is now being used to implement an Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), an application enhanced by a new base station unit from beacon vendor Sensoro.
The original iBeacon technology only provides one type of information: a device identifier that an app must reference against a database to understand the beacon's significance. Eddystone adds options for broadcasting a web link that an app would use to find beacon-specific information, or telemetry data describing the device's operational state. But beacon vendors have been expanding these protocols to include other types of sensor data, such as motion, ambient light, and temperature, in order to extend beacons beyond their retail market orientation. Beacons from Estimote, for instance, are available with accelerometers to sense the beacon's motion.
The ability to include telemetry in the beacon's data greatly expands their utility outside of retail settings. When operating in a telemetry mode, they can broadcast data from virtually any type and number of sensors as long as the data payload is under about a kilobit. Combined with the micro-positioning ability beacon technology provides, the systems can be used for monitoring and tracking of fixed and moving assets. Beacons are already being used for monitoring conditions in refrigerated storage containers and, by using accelerometer data, providing theft protection of artifacts on display in the Forbidden City.
The trouble with using expanded protocols, Sensoro CEO Tony Zhao told EE Times, is that they are often proprietary, especially in China where beacon technology is being increasingly embraced. This situation leads to customers having to sole-source their implementation when trying to use beacons in non-retail applications such as industrial sensing. Further, most of these modified beacon technologies have trouble offering the numbers and range of beacons needed to cover an industrial complex. "Current beacon technologies grapple with limitations of scale," said Zhao. "While beacons have predominantly been deployed in smaller areas, demand is rising for larger scale and longer range beacon systems."
But the industry is starting to evolve to overcome such hurdles. Sensoro, for instance, recently introduced its Alpha Space BaseStation to help beacons find firmer footing in the industrial market. The base station is able to manage as many as 10,000 beacons located over a six-mile-wide area, handling a wide range of protocols to allow mixing of beacon types within the deployment.
Such expansion in the range, quantity, and interoperability of beacon deployments bodes well for the technology serving as an alternative to cellular M2M systems in many applications both in terms of lowering cost and eliminating the need to operate in a cellular service operator. The approach can also reduce power. According to the company, power consumption of the terminal is only 10% of a traditional GPRS and 5.7% of a 3G/4G network.
—Rich Quinnell covers industrial control for EE Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org,