Introduction

Indoor positioning technology is becoming commercially available in various forms and quality. It’s a jungle out there and no one proven method has been sufficient for all purposes unlike the outdoor positioning with the use of GPS satellite technology.

Positioning systems have played a major role in people’s lives since the GPS satellite technology became publicly available in the late 90’s. Today almost everyone has a device with positioning capabilities like a smartphone, tablet, GPS tracking device or a watch with built-in GPS.

The GPS revolutionized outdoor positioning. Now 15 years later, the positioning technology goes indoor and new possibilities emerge for indoor use. Satellite-based positioning doesn’t work indoor, but other technological standards have emerged that make indoor positioning possible. Positioning indoor is more complicated than outdoor positioning using GPS because a certain infrastructure needs to be in place indoor.  GPS signals don’t work indoors or in narrow streets as they tend to attenuate and scatter by roofs and walls.

We might ask ourselves why we would even need a positioning system indoor. The answer lies within big buildings where some may spend enormous amount of time finding what they are looking for. Shopping centres, airports and museums are just some organizations where indoor positioning would bring great benefit to people. Can you just imagine that everybody would have an indoor map marked with their current position on a mobile phone? This would definitely revolutionise navigation indoor. Then, there are of course also benefits for organizations. With indoor positioning systems, organizations can deliver location-triggered content, location-based advertising and much more.

Available Indoor Positioning Technologies

The technologies used today for indoor positioning differ in terms of accuracy, costs and effort, but have improved quickly in the last couple of years.

Bluetooth Low Energy

Bluetooth

Bluetooth

Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) signals from battery driven beacons are at the core of the indoor location technology. It’s one of the latest technologies that has emerged and become an industry standard available on most devices today.  It uses so called BLE beacons (or iBeacons) that are inexpensive, small, have a long battery life and do not require an external energy source.  The device detects the signal from the beacon and  can calculate roughly the distance to the beacon and hence estimate the location.

WiFi

WiFi can be used in a similar way as BLE beacons, but requires an external power source, more setup costs and pricy equipment. The signal is stronger and it can cover more distance than BLE.

Wi-FI

Wi-FI

Magnetic Field Detection

Magnetic field detection using the compass sensor on a device can also be used for indoor positioning. A so called “fingerprinting” technology is used to map the magnetic fields on the venue and then the device can use that map to find it’s location indoors.  This technology can only be applied in certain circumstances where the magnetic fields indoor are stable.

Near Field Communication

Near Field Communication (NFC)

Near Field Communication (NFC); Source: Wikipedia

The NFC (Near Field Communication) technology consists of small chips that do not require a power source and the device will detect the chip and read its serial number if the device is within 30 cm away from the chip.  This technology is being applied now in Point Of Sale systems but can as well be used for precise indoor positioning within 30 cm.  The NFC technology is only available on newer phones so it will take some time for it to take a foothold. It will replace the conventional QR codes as it is more convenient because QR codes need to be visible and require a good light and camera.

Gyroscope and Acceleratormeter

A gyroscope is a device for measuring or maintaining orientation, based on the principles of conservation of angular momentum. Most smartphones have a built in gyroscope and compass. The device can use this information in addition to the other technologies mentioned for even more precise positioning.

At Locatify we decided to enter indoor positioning market with BLE technology because it is reliable, accurate enough, easy to maintain and requires little installation work. We are also committed to further develop the system integrating other technologies for indoor positioning.

Ultra-Wideband (UWB)

Ultra-wideband or “UWB” is undoubtedly the most precise method of indoor positioning. UWB consists of placing UWB anchors in the corners of a space up to 25m apart and attaching a UWB locator tag to an asset to be tracked. The UWB tag sends radio signal pulses between 3-7GHZ which the anchors use to position the tag with upto 30cm accuracy in a 3D space and with positioning updates upto every 50ms.

You can read more about UWB here and compare UWB and BLE iBeacons here.

How it works

Positioning the user

BLE beacons are the cornerstones of indoor positioning.  With this technology, the device can detect when in range of a beacon and even calculate its position if in range of more than two beacons.

Positioning based on BLE developed in the last couple of years. First prototypes were only able to detect which Beacon is closest to the user, but today we are able to use distance data from many beacons and position the user in 2D space on indoor map. Accuracy does vary depending on circumstances but can be as good as within +-1.5 meters.

This technology will develop further offering even more precise positioning. This will be achieved by utilising as well the use of magnetic field detection, gyroscope, accelerator meter and Near Field Communication (NFC) chips.

From the perspective of customer/visitor – Application

Customers and visitors use this technology for navigation and for location-based content reception.For that they use their smartphone, tablet with an app they install. The app provides indoor maps and location specific content automatically.

Automatic Museum Guide - App based on BLE indoor positioning technology

Automatic Museum Guide – App based on BLE indoor positioning technology

The Organisation’s perspective – Content Management System (CMS)

Organizations decide to use BLE positioning systems to provide better experience to their visitors or customers. Location based systems can bring benefits to almost any type of organisation. For example:

  • A museums can deliver location-based narrations supported by a map of a venue to visitors, thus providing navigation and interactive learning.
  • In retail, indoor positioning systems can be used for location-based advertising, navigation and delivery of other location-based content to customers.
  • Airports, and even hospitals could benefit by location-based data including turn by turn navigation.

The CMS web interface is used by organisations to manage their content, beacons and venue maps. A CMS is frequently a hosted software service and  keeps track of every piece of content in the app which visitors or customers use. A fully functional CMS is necessary for organizations because it gives them a complete control over the content that the users will see.

The CMS can also provide analytical reports. For example how the visitor traverses through the venue and how much time they spend at the specific locations.

At Locatify we have developed CMS for indoor positioning system, which can be tested free of charge hereThe CMS tutorial is available here and the (free) test app for Android can be downloaded here

CMS - BLE Indoor Positioning System

CMS – BLE Indoor Positioning System

Equipment required to provide BLE indoor positioning

BLE Beacons

Bluetooth Low Energy Beacons

Bluetooth Low Energy Beacons

BLE Beacons are small devices which can be easily mounted on walls. Their mission is to help Smartphones determine the location. BLE beacons use a battery power supply and consume very little energy. Good beacons can run for years on a single battery charge.

Because BLE is an open industry standard, many manufacturers make compatible BLE beacons. Manufacturers do differ in terms of quality, signal stability, battery life and how they package the beacons. One of the most popular beacon manufacturers at the moment are Estimote and Kontakt.io with many more emerging. Even LED light manufactures have begun including BLE beacons in their light fixtures. Price per beacon varies with good quality beacons priced around 20 Euros a piece.

For simple solutions one beacon can be used to trigger point (location which triggers content delivery) . For advanced solutions where we want to locate the user accurately in 2D space and show his whereabouts on the map (like the blue GPS dot does outside) more beacons are required.

App

An app for Smartphone or tablet is required to provide visitors navigation and location triggered content. Organisations usually choose between generic and branded apps. Branded apps are better for promotion of the organisation as they are only for their customers using their content only and brand.

Content Management System (CMS)

CMS is where you prepare floor plan, place beacons, trigger points and control the content. CMS is usually hosted online and maintained by chosen indoor positioning system provider. Different provides are available.

At Locatify we have developed CMS for indoor positioning system, which can be tested free of charge hereThe CMS tutorial is available here and the (free) test app for Android can be downloaded here

Organizations which are already using BLE positioning system

– Eldheimar Museum, Iceland

Locatify equipped Eldheimar museum with BLE indoor positioning technology in 2014. This was probably the first museum in the world equipped with beacons for positioning visitors. The system provides visitors navigation and location triggered content.

You can read more about this project here.

– American Airlines, United States

American Airlines use BLE beacons to send location triggered information through American Airlines app. American Airlines app users can get information like distance to gate, boarding time and closest security check line.

You can read more about this here.

– Walmart, United States

Walmart is using BLE beacons to send push notifications of special offers and discount coupons to customers in their stores.

 

What will the future bring?

Indoor Positioning Future

Indoor Positioning Future – All Technologies Together

The future of indoor positioning is definitely bright with new applications emerging utilising the technology. BLE beacons are inexpensive, easy to install and easy to maintain thus making this technology available to almost every organization.

Indoor positioning technologies are beyond the pilot phase and are helping a variety of organizations to improve their customers’ experience. There is big potential for this technology within museums, shopping centers, airports, theme parks, conferences and events organizers, basically everywhere, where indoor navigation and location-based content is important.

At Locatify we encourage you to try out our CMS and test your results in our testing app (both free of charge). All you need are BLE beacons and Smartphone running Android or iOS.

Our CMS is currently set up for Museum installations, conferences and events, indoor treasure hunt games and retail shopping centres but can be adjusted for most use cases.

For more information on beacons and location based app solutions, see our other blog posts below and If you have any additional questions, please contact us. We’ll be happy to help.

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Read more: BLE beacons vs Ultra-Wideband for Indoor Proximity and RTLS

Read more: Location Based Augmented Reality Apps 2017 (RTLS & AR)

Read more: BLE Beacons for Indoor positioning: Beacon limitations review