iBeacons and airports: Results from a real-world test

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.

SITA_Beacon at airport_2_LR

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.

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Nick Vivion

About the Writer :: Nick Vivion

Nick helps brands blog better at Ghost Works, a boutique blog management service. Nick was previously the Director of Content for tnooz, where he oversaw the editorial and commercial content as well as producing/hosting tnoozLIVE.



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  1. Jeff Jones

    I bought estimote beacons when they first came out and they worked for around 2 months but then the battery died. And it’s impossible to change. Very frustrating.

    I’ve just found PassKit sells USB ibeacons so I’m going to give these a try as sounds a much better long term solution than battery powered ones.

  2. Craig

    Two problems with iBeacons have already emerged. The relative ease of access from multiple vendors has e criminal element sticking them up in public areas where they can intercept smartphone users’ attention and hack into apps or data. Anything designed to work with one brand of phone (iPhone) immediately limits the uptake by passengers by 70%- any apps need to be “open” ie. HTML5 based not phone OS specific.

    • Kevin O'Sullivan

      Craig – this is wrong. Beacons cannot hack into apps, they simply emit a unique signal containing a UUID (such as B80BDFF4-54EA-4AEB-9485-810B3599C5AB). Other than this, it does not transmit data to a phone. There is generally a one to one relationship between the UUID and the app on the phone. So, if someone hacks a beacon and changes the UUID, it renders it invisible to the app (which is a problem, but a completely different one to what you describe). And, because the beacons just trigger an action (as opposed to push data), the phone can display what it wants in any format it wants – html or native. For example, I’ve got a beacon that triggers the display of my TODO list as I walk out of my house, fully native, running on Android.

      • craig

        @Kevin- was told this from a retail brand manager- in terms of adding additional “unknown” iBeacons into stores.

        Thanks for clarification on the hack details.

        Wouldn’t airports be better off using WiFi -can track footfall and capture analytics without the risk of being cloned with stick ups all over the terminals?

        • Kevin O'Sullivan

          You can either do network based location for footfall, but that means the phone can’t tap into the info to provide customer services (the network can see where all the devices are, but the phone cannot act on this). Or you can do RSSI fingerprinting, and put a database on the phone, but this needs to be continuously updated, but walking all over the airport taking measurements. And its not supported at an OS level like beacons are in iOS.

          There are a lot of indoor location solutions, and you need to pick the one that matches what you’re trying to do. If you want to provide proximity aware messages to apps on phones, right now, beacons are the best solution.

  3. Sam

    Great to know about iBeacons.
    This technology can have a hell lot of applications in different places as diverse as a Rail station, stadium, factories, offices , stores and much more.
    In a stadium full of people, specific items can be sold to specific persons based on their profile. It could be used in crowd-control to guide people to nearest exits or entry points.
    It can be used for more automated controls too like security systems, I guess.


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