Bluetooth Beacons for Location

It’s not uncommon for architects and interior designers to get on us wireless guys for cluttering up their aesthetic, so I always try to get on their good side whenever possible. They don’t tend to complain about “necessary” stuff like light switches and fire alarms, but for some reason, they never see network infrastructure as “necessary”.

I’m going to lay out a technical explanation about why we place BLE beacons where we do, while trying to be sensitive to the aesthetic considerations. (See also: Hiding In Plain Sight). Aruba’s best practices for beacon deployment are documented here: Location Beacon Deployment Guide – Meridian Platform Documentation (meridianapps.com)

  1. Near The Floor. Sometimes, the wall finish is such that using adhesives or screws is practically a capital offense. It could be fabric, glass, metal, or whatever. At that point, you’ll usually have a baseboard upon which to mount them, just make sure it’s not going to get damaged by floor cleaning processes. Another reason to go close to the floor is to use the floor to create a shadow when deploying near an open hole like an atrium or a stairwell. You don’t generally want your beacons from one floor being visible on another, as that can really confuse a map that is not aware of floor holes. It’s also important to always place a beacon near every “portal” at each floor (doors from stairwells, elevator lobbies, and so forth) so the app knows when you’ve changed floors and to switch maps when navigating.
  2. On The Wall. I’ll explain in a minute why you want your beacons as close to the user as possible. What this generally means is that you want to go on the wall most of the time. In terms of spacing, you should generally be within 3-4m of a beacon anywhere in the building. Being closer to your beacons will improve accuracy, and greater beacon density will reduce latency (but only to a point, it typically takes 2-5 seconds for the app to get a new fix because it has to listen for all the beacons it can hear) .
  3. On The Ceiling. Suboptimal, but works in a pinch. Suboptimal mainly because even standing directly under the beacon, you’re usually at least 2m away from it.

Now for the engineering reasons behind all this: It all comes back to the old friend that wireless engineers everywhere love and cherish: free space path loss. Except here, we’re making constructive use of it.

Determining distance based on triangulation of beacon RSSI is optimal within about 0-4 metres due to the inverse square law of RF propagation. Typically, the calibrated output of the beacons is 0dBm (1mW). They operate in the 2.4GHz band on a 2MHz advertisement channel tucked between Wi-Fi channels 1 and 6, as well as one just past channel 11, and another one just below channel 1. My colleague Joel Crane explained BLE frequencies in 60 seconds (when he was at Mist, now he’s back at Metageek)

There’s also some variability between receiver devices in terms of their sensitivity and even based on internal antenna configuration and how the device is held/oriented, so let’s just assume it’s +/- 3dB for the purposes of this example because it makes the math simpler.

Free Space Path Loss, Illustrated by my good friend and colleague François at Semfio Networks

When the receiving device sees a BLE beacon, it then determines its distance from that beacon based on the RSSI (and uses the beacon’s ID to correlate it with the device’s placement on the map). When it sees a beacon at -35dBm, it knows it’s under a metre away. If it sees it at -55dBm, that could be anywhere between 4 and 8 metres away. So the farther you get from the beacon, the wider that margin of error becomes. Any walls that get between can also add 3dB or more of attenuation depending on the materials used. (just like they do with Wi-Fi, since we’re dealing with the same RF frequencies, just at about 1/1000 the power).

Below 1 metre, every time you halve the distance you gain 6dB – so 50cm would be -34dB, 25cm would be -28dB, 12.5cm would be -22dB, and now we’re getting really close to the beacon, and it’s already lost 99% of the transmitted power… Also worth noting here that when you mount them on a metal surface, you gain a little bit back, but if your surface is less than one wavelength (~12cm) wide, the math gets tricky and I won’t go into it here.

What this means for placement is that you want to get them as close to the receiver as possible, usually within 4m. This generally means at a height of 1-2m on walls, and between 40 and 55 inches is ideal, since it avoids hips, shoulders, and carts which could damage the beacon or outright rip it off the wall (and collisions with a hip or shoulder is not fun for the owner of the hips and shoulders either… ask me how I know). They can also be placed on ceilings, but as I pointed out previously, in an office building, that usually means you’re never going to get closer than ~2m to the beacon even if you’re standing directly underneath it.  Beacons near the floor are about a meter closer to the receiving device than the ceiling would.

In a recent deployment, the basic beacon grid (best practice: 10m) was deployed on the structural column wraps, which were spaced about 12m apart. The gaps in the middle of the squares formed by 4 columns were filled in with AP based beacons (which isn’t always dead center due to some variability in the AP placement within those squares). In the common central areas on each floor, we had to fill some of those gaps with additional beacons to get within about 4-5m and provide greater accuracy due to the various obstructions, as well as place beacons near the areas where traffic enters and exits those spaces. 

In locations where there are particular aesthetic concerns, it is usually possible to paint the beacons and their mounts to match, as long as the paint does not contain any metallic materials (lead, aluminum powder, gold leaf, iron oxide, etc.), or you can apply a vinyl skin. This also applies to access points. Check with your vendor to make sure it will not void the warranty (as it tends to do with many vendors). You can also often find snap-on paintable covers for indoor APs if you don’t want to paint them directly. 

Applying this to design methodologies

So how do you plan out a beacon deployment? Same way you generally would with any RF planning. Ekahau supports modeling BLE access points (although it cannot survey them, much to my annoyance). At this point you want to set your BLE coverage requirements to the RSSI required for the most distance you want to be from the beacon, which is -52dBm, and you want to make sure that within that coverage level, you can always hear at least 3 beacons.

(Illustration coming as soon as I can mock this up in Ekahau and grab some screen shots. )


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