Beacons are small, often inexpensive devices that enable more accurate location within a narrow range than GPS, cell tower triangulation and Wi-Fi proximity. Beacons transmit small amounts of data via Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) up to 50 meters, and as a result are often used for indoor location technology, although beacons can be used outside as well.
Beacons are typically powered by small batteries, but they can be plugged into an outlet or USB port instead to maintain consistent power. In addition to standalone beacon devices, mobile phones, tablets and PCs with BLE support can all function as beacons, with the ability to both emit and receive beacon signals.
Privacy Concerns and Examples of Beacon Use
In terms of privacy concerns, beacons can only be used as a form of voluntary communication between whoever owns the beacon and the owner of a receiving smartphone or similar mobile device. The beacon communication frequently relies on an app, especially in the case of retail marketing via beacons.
As an example of how beacons can be used, when a customer is in a store a beacon in that location can communicate with the store’s app on the customer’s phone to display special offers or additional information for specific products or services the company is currently offering.
Apple currently uses iBeacons in its stores, Facebook has started offering “Place Tips” to users that rely on beacons in various spots in New York City, and enterprises are beginning to add beacons to help improve workplace efficiency and increase productivity.
Beacons in Satellite Communications
The use of the term beacon in satellite communications can instead refer to a tracking device used by control engineers on the ground to monitor the satellite.