17-10-2018 | | By Nnamdi Anyadike
New generation Bluetooth beacons with longer battery life and longer range will allow for easy deployment of smart logistics and location services. A recent report from Transparency Market Research (TMR) forecasts a whopping 16.05% CAGR in the global beacon market between 2018 and 2026, reaching a valuation of $4.9bn by the final forecast year. By comparison, the market was worth just $1.1bn in 2016.
The global beacon market is surging as a result of the increasing integration of IoT with retail applications leading the way. Retail companies such as Tesco and Kroger now employ beacon technology to gain more profit and improve their customer base. However, one factor which the report says prohibits even faster market growth is the need for Bluetooth to be switched on all the time in order for the beacon devices to work.
TMR says, “Consumers may not necessarily want to keep their Bluetooth switched on all the time for security reasons and because of battery issues in some mobile devices.” That said the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) sees beacon devices increasing to a 565 million units by the end of 2021 on the back of strong growth in the Asia Pacific region.
Companies are jockeying for position to take advantage of this strong market growth. And a raft of new technologies is being developed to extend battery life. In 2017, a partnership deal was agreed between Kube Systems and Gimbal and other leading operating in the global beacon market such as Radius Networks, Inc., Kontakt.io, and Estimote Inc. are also expected to make their presence known.
Earlier this year, engineers from European research organisation Imec and Renesas Electronics Corporation (a semiconductor company in Tokyo) showcased their new record-low-voltage communications chip at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference in San Francisco.
The Bluetooth transceiver design, which switches out analogue circuits for digital ones, is said to be capable of dramatically boosting battery life, thereby enabling richer sensor networks and extending the lifetime of implanted medical devices. The transceiver, which meets the Bluetooth 5 standard, uses 0.8 volts, down from a full volt. And that reduction is sufficient to extend battery life by 50 percent.
In other developments, the Israeli semiconductor start-up Wiliot promises no battery Bluetooth beacons by 2019. The device is based on two main technologies: ‘wave computing’; and ‘backscattering’ that basically remodulates a Bluetooth signal coming in one channel. The guiding concept is that thanks to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, the modern world is awash in 2.4-GHz radiation. And some of that RF energy can be used to free the IoT from batteries and other energy storage devices.
“There’s a lot of Bluetooth energy. You’re bathed in it,” says Steve Statler, senior vice president of marketing and business development at Wiliot. The goal is to begin selling fingernail-size devices that are as thin as a sheet of paper for less than $1 next year. Wiliot expects it to be used for smart packaging, indoor location services, clothing tags, asset tracking in warehouses, TV remote controls, and other purposes. The start-up has received backing from Qualcomm and the German chemical and pharmaceutical firm Merck KGaA.
Meanwhile EM Microelectronic, the ultra-low-power semiconductor company of the Swatch Group, announced in September the release of its next generation family of two Bluetooth beacons featuring longer battery life and longer range. They use EM’s Simple Beacon™ technology, allowing for full over-the-air configurability for common beacon standards, such as iBeacon and Eddystone, as well as compatibility with Quuppa’s Intelligent Location System and other proprietary beacon technologies.
The first beacon is the EMBC22, which is an upgrade and replacement of the company’s EMBC02 BLE beacon. It features the latest low-power components and thanks to the over-the-air configuration capability it is easier to install or deploy. A modular certification enables its use with different housing options, battery sizes and sensors.
The second beacon is the EMBP01. This also includes an accelerometer and a rugged encapsulation including a CR2032 battery. Michel Willemin, CEO of EM Microelectronic commented, “This new Bluetooth beacon generation addresses our customers’ need for easy-to-deploy connectivity solutions. Building on our highly successful EM9304 Bluetooth Low Energy IC, these modules dramatically lowers the deployment barrier for asset tracking, indoor navigation and other location-based services, bringing Industry 4.0 implementations within the reach of any company, regardless of its size”
But Fabio Belloni, GM & Co-founder of Quuppa argues that the limitations of Bluetooth are such that many applications have now moved beyond what Bluetooth beacons can currently offer. “The fact that beacons only work with smartphones, not tags, immediately limits their applicability in many industrial IoT applications. And their precision—3 to 4 meters—further limits their usefulness,” he opined in a recent article.
In IoT, the focus has been on how to better track mobile assets, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of assets. This means a tag mentality is needed, something Bluetooth beacons currently don’t support with their mobile-centric systems, he said. The shift is towards a more network-centric approach, with the intelligence in the receiver antenna and a centralised software application, not in a smart-phone app. The Bluetooth SIG is currently working on new way to consider how location is calculated.
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