These days, the definition of a “mobile device” is broad enough to encompass a diverse range of consumer goods and accessories, ranging from notebook and small laptop computers (they’re portable by hand, therefore mobile), to phones, smart cards, tags, key fobs, badges, or tokens. Most (but not necessarily all) bear some form of digital/electronic circuitry.
And like other small items that we carry every day, the one thing they all have in common is that they’re small enough and portable enough to lose, lose sight of, misplace, or steal. So wouldn’t it be great if there was a way of physically keeping tabs on these items, potentially reliable enough to locate and reclaim them – even if they’ve been spirited away?
Thankfully, there is. It comes in the form of Bluetooth trackers.
Bluetooth is a short-range wireless technology developed by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group. It’s used in connecting different devices such as computers and mobile phones, or for building personal area networks. Connections may typically be established over distances ranging from 33 ft (10 m) up to around 330 ft (100 m).
Bluetooth chips are usually small, but come in a range of sizes, and use radio waves as their mode of transmission and reception.
The release of Bluetooth 4.0 – which is commonly referred to as Bluetooth Low Energy, or BLE – greatly extended the range of what could be done with Bluetooth devices. It has enabled manufacturers to fit Bluetooth functionality into tiny devices with rechargeable or disposable batteries that can in some cases run for a year or more, without having to be swapped out or recharged.
This, in turn, has enabled designers to fit these tiny transmitter/receivers as embedded or replaceable tags capable of being attached to or placed inside mobile devices and small accessories. These tags may be linked via Bluetooth Low Energy connection to a smartphone or tablet – and potentially to third-party tracking services hosted by the tag manufacturers.
The BLE link enables tagged items and the mobile device hosting the administrative software to exchange information with each other when within communications range, and to keep track of their movements and location with respect to each other.
Bluetooth Trackers – Not Just For Devices
The uses for these Bluetooth trackers extend beyond the linking up of mobile devices, to the potential to track small consumer goods and accessories of all kinds – or large ones, for that matter.
Trackers may be placed on or inside key fobs, spectacle cases, wallets, purses, backpacks, dog collars, bikes, cars, or anything else that you habitually spend time close to, and don’t wish to be separated from.
Tracking – Not Location
It’s important to make the distinction between geo-location – the pinpointing of geographical positions and co-ordinates made possible through triangulation and satellite services like GPS – and the ability to establish mutual distances between objects, which is made possible by Bluetooth trackers.
The first may be coupled with sophisticated tracking software to give real-time monitoring of the position and movement of a tagged object, over a potentially global range that’s covered by the satellite distribution and mobile communications network coverage.
Bluetooth trackers, on the other hand, will enable the software to establish the last known location of a tagged object, and allow a Bluetooth connection to be re-established with an item once it’s in an acceptable range of the mobile device hosting the tracking app. If the range is too great, the connection won’t be established – and the Bluetooth tracking system isn’t able to determine the location of an out of range item, in and of itself.
The Power of the Crowd
The limitations of Bluetooth tracking as a proximity-based system may be offset to some extent through a “crowd relay” effect. Here, an individual who loses contact with an object may re-establish connections with it, if another person who’s using the same Bluetooth tracking system and software passes within range of the lost item.
The likelihood of this being the case currently applies only in very specific circumstances, such as in a heavily populated urban area (where many consumers may have bought the same brand of Bluetooth tracker), or in a self-contained or isolated environment (such as an oil rig or boarding school) where lots of the inhabitants use the same hardware and software.
As Bluetooth tracking technology evolves, there’s scope for this crowd effect to be greatly expanded, as we’ll see. But for now, it’s simply a selling point offered by certain vendors, in a market that’s generating increasing interest from the buying public.
Power to the Consumer
There are several Bluetooth trackers already gaining traction in the consumer market. If you’re looking to invest in some, here are some features to look out for:
- Form Factor: How big is the device – and what items are you looking to attach it to, or place it inside of?
- Type of Battery: One-shot disposable (with at least a one-year lifespan)? Replaceable? Rechargeable by the user – and if so, how long for, and how long does it last?
- Connection Range: The Bluetooth consortium maintains that its devices may be optimized to a range of 660 ft (200 m) or more – but it’s a safe policy to assume that you’ll get only 50-70 percent of the range advertised by the manufacturer.
- Alarm Volume: Audible cues are typically used to indicate the degree of proximity to a Bluetooth tracking tag, so it’s important that the loudness and tone of this alarm should be distinctive enough to enable the user to estimate their distance from an object.
- “Geofencing” Capability: A fancy way of describing user-configurable alerts (alarm and/or push notification) if you stray outside a certain distance from a tagged object.
- Find Your Phone Functionality: A reversal of the Bluetooth tracking process which enables a tagged item to ping back for a response from your mobile phone or other device hosting the tracker software.
- Crowdsourced Location: Mentioned previously, the crowd relay option for multiple users of the same Bluetooth tracker and software.
Some Leading Names in the Bluetooth Tracker Market
The Tile holds its position as the best-selling and top-rated brand in the Bluetooth tracker market, offering consistently stable performance and a very small footprint. But in recent years, it’s been facing competition from rivals with similar features such as TrackR, and Chipolo Plus.
Unlike the Tile and some of its imitators, Duet features a replaceable battery. It also has a “Find Your Phone” (or car, or whatever) button, and the ability to set WiFi “safe zones” where its alarms won’t sound – a useful feature to avoid noise pollution and annoyance when you’re moving around in areas where you habitually spend much of your day.
Finally, the iHere3 is a larger footprint Bluetooth tracker fitted with a USB port and removable cable for recharging.
The Power of the Crowd – Revisited
The Bluetooth tracker market and its technology are still at an early and fairly rudimentary stage. As products improve, there’s scope for the location capabilities of Bluetooth tracking to be expanded.
One way would be through the formation of partnerships between device manufacturers, allowing the use of standardized or common protocols that would increase the number of users having similar software.
Another possibility could involve “piggybacking” on the expanding infrastructure of the Internet of Things (IoT) – a move that could potentially extend a Bluetooth relay sequence across an entire city, or further.
It will be interesting to see how Bluetooth trackers gain adoption and evolve, in the years ahead.
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