Bringing home the beacons

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by Emily Atkins

A Toronto-based start-up is offering a new tracking technology with supply chain applications.

BeWhere Inc’s tech uses smartphone Bluetooth connectivity with small battery-powered beacons to keep tabs on mobile assets or goods in transit.

About the size of a business card and about a centimetre thick, each beacon is equipped with an accelerometer, temperature sensor, light sensor, high-intensity LED and buzzer. They record data such as temperature, motion, light and impact and transmit this to the user’s smart phone in real time, using a low-energy Bluetooth modem.

The LED and buzzer are aboard to help locate the beacon in a storage area or warehouse.

The beacons default to transmitting data to the smartphone every second, but can also be set to transmit ten times a second. However, this will eat through the battery, which is intended to last two years.

They have a 250m range, says BeWhere CEO, Owen Moore. But even if they are out of range they are recording and transmit when service is resumed.
On the device there’s a mobile app and a web-based interface for office use. It will show all the beacons status in real time, and will alert users to a beacon’s status, whether it’s got a low battery or is out of range.

So far, the company has clients who are using the technology to track mobile equipment in the emergency services and construction sectors.

Moore says the goal is to reach transportation providers with a lower-cost alternative to previously available tracking systems.

As with any tech start-up there are a couple technical issues to resolve. In this case, Moore says, it’s the Bluetooth connection.

Because Bluetooth is notoriously buggy, the system uses only the “advertisement” packet to transmit data from the beacon to the phone. This allows one-way communication and is very effective because the phone and beacon don’t have to maintain a connection.

But in order for the phone to activate the LED or the buzzer on the beacon, a two-way connection has to be established and maintained. At the moment, it’s a weak point that BeWhere is working on. The software is being enhanced to make the connection stronger.

Pricing for the service is based on the number of beacons being used. At the moment BeWhere is not charging for users who want to try up to 10 beacons. Above that, to 100 beacons, the cost is $200 per month. If a user were to have over 10,000 beacons, Moore says the price would come down to about 20 to 30 cents a month per unit.  The beacons are sold for $45 each.