iBeacons have been a much buzzed about new technology, using low-energy Bluetooth to deliver much more specific proximity awareness than GPS.
Travel and retail applications have been two of the most obvious potential areas for deployment of this new technology, and the folks at the SITA Lab have done some of the first real world testing to determine just how these beacons might work in an airport situation.
When it comes to airports, there's an extensive and attractive opportunity to boost continued connection with travelers throughout their respective journeys.
There are endless movements throughout any given day in an airport setting, with a constantly updated stream of data points requiring dissemination to passengers, airlines and administration. iBeacons offer a very unique and compelling solution to facilitating this massive data crunch.
The indoor proximity system facilitated by these low-energy Bluetooth devices means that airports really can think in a whole new way about how they control access to information for different stakeholders in the airport ecosystem.
SITA Lab has tested the technology in the real world using Estimote beacons and an iPhone 5S. Here's a brief breakdown of the results they are sharing widely, quoting:
- Installation: Deployment of beacons is straightforward. The Estimote beacons have a sticky surface and can be placed on most surfaces and remain permanently switched on. The beacon ID values can be set with a companion app. This simplicity and mobility can also be a drawback. In a large deployment, it will be necessary to carefully track where your beacons are.
- Range: The range can be set in the beacons, and while advertised at up to 70 meters, the reality is that in a crowded airport environment, the maximum range will be about half this.
- Detection time: The smartphone app was able to detect the presence of beacons in approximately one second.
- Proximity accuracy: This varied considerably with a typical inaccuracy of +/-5 meters. However, this is still sufficient for most use cases and many beacon vendors have proximity calibration capabilities.
Regarding the experiment with the nascent technology, the head of SITA Lab (also SITA’S Chief Technology Officer) Jim Peters, said:
The relatively low cost of beacons makes them an attractive option for airports, but we need to be careful of adopting a gold rush approach to deploying them.
It is clear from our initial research that beacons should be treated as a common-use piece of infrastructure. Airports serve multiple airlines, and airlines travel to multiple airports. It is a very complex network - too complex for everyone to manage their own deployments. It will need careful management.
Airports also need to carefully manage their radio space as beacons, which are radio-emitting devices, are deployed. They will need to have clear visibility of where, and how, the beacons are being set up to avoid disruption to each other’s signals and existing Wi-Fi infrastructure.
This highlights how the law of unintended consequences plays out as new technologies become adopted - airlines and airports must carefully roll out these radio-emitting devices in controlled studies to ensure minimal-to-no disruption of the deep communications infrastructure needed for successful airport operations.
In its initial report, SITA quotes Radio Engineer Tobias Food about the potential interactions between existing radio networks and beacons:
Our initial research indicates that deploying only a handful of beacons around an airport will not impact existing Wi-Fi signals. However, there is a clear relationship between the number of beacon deployments (density), the power setting (which controls the range) and the advertising interval (frequency of emission).
Too many beacons deployed at the wrong settings will disrupt each other’s signals, and existing Wi-Fi infrastructure. The evidence is that airports will need to have clear visibility of where beacons are being deployed and how.
Potential scenarios must also consider how increased smartphone usage by passengers will impact the available spectrum inside the location. In order to most successfully use the features unlocked by the beacons, passengers must encounter minimal resistance when using the technology.
The need for the sharing of beacons is perhaps one of the most significant management challenges - ie. how to ensure open access to shared beacons? In addition, there are infrastructure and logistics concerns for airlines attempting to manage a consistent experience globally using the beacons.
This registry is the primary message of the SITA study, as the organization is hoping to get out in front of that - and to place itself as a valuable player at the center of the ecosystem - with a common registry of all beacons deployed at airports around the world. The registry will be available here, and will offer up a comprehensive list of beacons worldwide for interested developers.
SITA says that,
The registry will not limit, direct or control any of the possible use cases for beacon technology. In fact, defining a set of industry standards to provide data sets in a common way will provide the necessary basis to stimulate further innovation among the developer community.
Nonetheless, the potential benefits do seem to outweigh the challenges to this new technology, given the ultimate advantages of placing more granular information at the hands of the various stakeholders.
NB: Airport smartphone image courtesy Shuttertstock.