iBeacon Sees the Light: Powering a New Generation of Bluetooth LE

ibeacon-light-harvesting
iBeacon Light Harvesting

Next Generation of Devices Use Energy Harvesting

Balancing the user experience with maintaining battery power on an iBeacon or Bluetooth LE device is a key development challenge.

Set your advertising or signal power too high and your battery will run out in weeks. Set it too low and your battery could last years – but there could be a significant delay in your users getting beacon “messages” – receiving a welcome alert when they’re in the restroom instead of at the front door of your restaurant.

But a new generation of Bluetooth LE beacons use energy harvesting and remind us that while iBeacon technology may be relatively simple, we’re still at the earliest days of the technology. Yesterday’s world-class beacon may soon seem like a relic of a different time compared to their new, um, higher powered cousins.

The iBeacon Conundrum: Brand or Specification?

Estimote this week published an excellent post outlining how to conserve battery on their devices.

But the post isn’t just a primer for Estimote. It’s for anyone who wants a quick cheat sheet on how long a beacon will last at different signal and power strengths. It serves as an excellent response to concerns that the Apple specification for iBeacon might put a lot of pressure on battery life. With Apple requiring a 100ms advertising interval, many battery-powered beacons would only last a few months.

Of course, this leads to an interesting question: who cares? And I tend to side in the camp that says that while Apple may have a specification, that doesn’t mean you need to use it.

In fact, the value of the iBeacon name attached to a beacon seems, for now at least, to be negligible. It’s great marketing. But your beacon will work just as well whether it has the iBeacon trademark affixed or not.

In theory, a beacon could be two things at once: an iBeacon (meeting their specifications for broadcasting) or just a good old Bluetooth LE beacon when broadcasting at a different interval or power strength than the Apple specification.

Most retailers or venues won’t even know the difference.

The iBeacon name, therefore, can simply mean this: we love Apple, we love using their trademark, but use our beacon however you please. 

Battery and Signals

The Estimote post reminds us of the challenge device makers face in jumping ahead of the curve, or waiting for the technology to settle down:

We became the first company to ship beacons in July of last year, because we wanted the developers in our community to get to play with our Dev Kits as early as possible – introducing them to the possibilities of next generation context-aware applications.

At that time, Apple was still finalizing the iBeacon specification. We didn’t wait for them to finish, deciding instead to ship the beacons with our default settings because we knew it would be easy to update configurations live. We are tremendously happy to have built a huge community of developers who have helped us to test and validate both the beacons themselves and a slew of beacon applications.

After a quick overview of the physics of signals, Estimote offers a handy guide to battery life….one which would roughly apply to most of the popular coin-battery operated beacons:

Battery Life Comparisons | via Estimote

A New Generation of Beacons

A new generation of devices, kits and chips is hoping to make these tradeoffs a thing of the past. Using light harvesting, they offer a way to power beacons without any batteries at all.

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Light-Harvesting Beacon: Netclearance m1Beacon

Netclearance Systems

Netclearance Systems is staking a claim to be first out of the gate. Their m1BeaconLite uses the latest in energy-harvesting and storage technology that converts ambient light into a power source capable of handling a typical BLE application.

“Energy harvesting delivers a scalable and environmental-friendly approach to indoor beacon deployments while reducing the total cost of beacon ownership,” said Jack Donner, Chief Technology Officer. “Most indoor venues such as airports, stadiums, retail stores, hotels, shopping centers have an abundance of high intensity ambient light. The tremendous operational and energy-harvesting efficiency of the m1BeaconLite…enables our customers to realize the benefits of beacons without having to manage battery-life or wired installations.”

Texas Instruments

Meanwhile, Texas Instruments has been making waves of its own.  While TI chips power a range of existing beacons, the company has become a competitor to other beacon makers.

By releasing its SensorTag beacon, they may well have recognized that they had a chance to grab some of the margins that other device makers were grabbing by releasing its own product.

But TI isn’t being left behind on the energy front. They offer their own reference design for using light harvesting to drive device development:

This subsystem reference design is highly differentiated over existing solutions as it incorporates no batteries, thus eliminating the hassle of battery replacement, battery charging, and saving costs associated with battery maintenance.  This solution also ensures that there are no constraints around installation as long as there is typical indoor lighting available.  There is also no ON/OFF switch; the entire load connection and disconnection is handled by the power management IC therefore ensuring that the solution is self managing.

Based on this, we should start to see existing device makers incorporate this approach into new lines of iBeacon devices.

(But please…would someone at Texas Instruments recognize how bloody awful your website is? It’s almost impossible to find information!)

Will Estimote Launch a New Beacon?

We’re told that Estimote is planning to release a new line of beacons. Perhaps their next generation device will use energy harvesting. Maybe it will use a new form factor that makes it easier to change the battery!

Regardless, we expect to see them and others launch new beacons, new devices, and set new standards for quality. Some won’t even use batteries at all.

Soon, we’ll be able to worry more about the user experience and less about how to configure our beacons so they don’t go dead a month or two after being deployed above the front door of your store.

Share Your Thoughts

Join our weekly e-mail list for more on iBeacons. Join the conversation on Twitter, or connect with me on LinkedIn.

Are there other light harvesting beacon solutions that we’ve missed? Is this a trend or a dead end? If nothing else, does it suggest that the current generation of devices will look like prototypes in the years ahead?

4 Responses to “iBeacon Sees the Light: Powering a New Generation of Bluetooth LE”

  1. Dialog Semiconductor demoed a Beacon using energy harvesting based on its DA14580 chipset at the latest Bluetooth World. It really had a great success.

    Reply
  2. Thanks Bob – and thanks for that Julien, I forgot about that, I think you posted before on that topic! :)

    I feel so…energized!!!

    Reply
  3. Light harvesting is vital for the future wide spread deployment of BLE devices. For us now, beacon maintenance and replacement is one of our biggest concerns in our merchant environments given the battery life limitations of the exiting generation of devices.

    We anticipate many of the popular device makers to come out with solutions based on this along with hopefully more economical pricing to help spur wider acceptance of beacons in the field and to lower the barrier of entry for potential adopters.

    Reply

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