Next-generation Bluetooth® beacon technology – new business models and revenue streams
By leveraging the low power features and ubiquity of Bluetooth® Low Energy (BLE), beacons have the ability to broadcast short messages within a local area, providing recipients with information or the ability to access further value-added services.
The technology has the potential to drive new business endeavours through the creation of new service models that deliver new revenue streams. However, in order for the technology to realise its potential, designers have to deliver compact, low cost solutions with a battery life that extends to months, or even years.
In this technical article, we will look at the applications for beacons and some of the latest technologies and support tools available that will help designers meet the needs of this challenging market sector.
Applications drive new business models
At the simplest level, a Bluetooth® beacon is a stand-alone transmitter that can be placed almost anywhere, either in a fixed location or attached to something mobile such as a parcel. Useful information such as a URL or location-specific facts can be contained in the repeated transmission to allow a Bluetooth®-enabled mobile device to capture the information and inform the user.
The forecast market is huge – according to ABI Research, the market will grow from the 4 million devices that shipped in 2015 to over 565 million annually by 2021. One of the real benefits of this solution is that every person who owns a modern smartphone or tablet already has a beacon-ready receiver that they carry with them anyway.
From the data-provision side, potential beacon users include commercial/retail businesses and manufacturing companies as well as organisations that distribute information to visitors (such as tourist offices, exhibition organisers, or cultural venues like museums and art galleries and even consumers.
While the market is in its early stages and many more applications will emerge as technology matures, current beacon applications include:
- Advertising: Advertisers can communicate URLs and other information to prospects and customers that are physically close to the location.
- Retail: Shops can communicate with in-store customers and also analyse the effectiveness of store layouts and point-of-sale advertising.
- Navigation: beacons can be distributed throughout hospitals, department stores, or other locations such as exhibitions or art galleries. A mobile app on user devices can then assist navigation within the location guiding users to specific areas.
- Asset tracking: a beacon attached to any physical asset can enable it to be located rapidly. Security can be enhanced by an alarm if the asset moves beyond a user-defined threshold.
- Geo-fencing: children, patients or elderly citizens carrying beacons can be monitored at home or within an area defined by a beacon network.
- Logistics: beacons can be attached to high value inventory in a warehouse, or packages on vehicle, allowing individual items to be identified and located.
- Urban environment: In smart cities beacons can be used to guide users to a specific point or to provide tourists with interesting information, both indoors and outside.
Selecting chipsets for beacon design
The advent of BLE (as opposed to ‘standard’ Bluetooth®) was a key enabler of the beacon revolution. Not only is it present in every mobile device shipped since 2012, providing a huge installed base of receivers, its focus on low-energy transmission enables the long battery life that will contribute to the success of beacons.
While several System-on-Chip (SoC) solutions are already available, not all solutions offer the same features and designers must pay attention to certain critical requirements when choosing the platform for a beacon application.
At the top of the list of requirements for system designers, Bluetooth standard compliance is essential for interoperability with other devices. Additionally, to meet the challenging size and cost requirements a highly integrated SoC will save PCB space and reduce BoM cost. Finally, a highly efficient solution will maximize the battery lifetime, allowing operation to last for months or years without any maintenance.
Overall power consumption depends on two principal factors; the IC selected and the application. While the beacon is not transmitting, the quiescent current will be as close to zero as possible and while transmitting a peak current of a few milliamps will be needed. The average current that is key to defining battery life will depend on the quiescent and peak currents as well as the rate of transmission, as defined by the application.
Toshiba focused on minimising peak current demand in its TC3567x family of BLE ICs that is intended for use in beacons and other small Bluetooth devices. By incorporating advanced 65nm RFCMOS technology and low-power circuit design best-in-class power consumption is ensured with peak current as low as 3.3mA in the latest-generation TC35678 device. In a typical practical use example the average current would be around 5.5µA with this device, meaning that a 230mAh CR2032 battery would last 41818 hours between changes – or approximately 4.77 years.
The TC35678 also integrates a certified Toshiba Bluetooth stack, providing a stable platform to base designs on. This not only reduces design effort but also means that the designer does not need extensive Bluetooth knowledge to rapidly deliver a market-ready design solution.
The latest Bluetooth beacon technology
Toshiba’s TC3567x SoC ICs combine Bluetooth baseband and RF blocks and an ARM® CPU core as well as code and data storage. A DC/DC converter or LDO, a general-purpose ADC and general-purpose I/Os are also provided on the chip, streamlining system design and helping to reduce external component count as well as simplifying PCB layout.
As the Bluetooth specification has evolved, so has the level of integration within Bluetooth SoCs. The latest BLE 4.2 compliant TC35678 SoC offers peak currents as low as 3.3mA with quiescent currents of 50nA. All RF matching components are also integrated meaning that only seven external components are required for a complete design. By requiring 70% less components than competitor solutions as well as reducing the PCB by about 20%, TC35678FSG-based solutions can be realised in areas as small as 20mm x 10mm.
Toshiba’s TC35768-based reference design is a complete CR2032-powered solution which enables rapid deployment for system evaluation and development.
Toshiba also offers the advantages of fewer external components and reduced PCB space with different ROM and RAM alternatives for reduced cost applications.
Bluetooth beacons are not yet widely known by consumers yet they represent a huge opportunity to system developers as well as the commercial organisations that will use them to advertise and develop new commercial models and revenue streams.
While the current opportunities are significant, they will only increase with the advent of Bluetooth 5.0 that will allow longer messages, faster data transmission and greater transmission distances – allowing users to develop even more sophisticated beacon functionality with enhanced commercial possibilities.
In order to produce a successful beacon, designers will need to select a suitable SoC platform that operates with extremely low power and offers high levels of integration to minimise size and design complexity.