If you visit one of the 28 Major League ballparks that have deployed beacons, your smartphone can guide you to your seat or give you a customized coupon to the team store. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Guggenheim museums in New York are deploying beacons to enhance the visitor experience too. Curious about the artist? Just open your smartphone app and, based on your location in the museum, the artist’s biography appears on your smartphone.

So what does this have to do with safety?

According to ABI Research, it is estimated that by 2020 there will be over 400 million beacons installed worldwide. This is an amazing growth rate given the first iBeacon only entered the market in 2014. Given this phenomenal growth, it is expected beacon technology will transcend into other novel application areas. In this article, we explore how a newer generation of industrial-grade beacons promises to transform industrial workplaces and enhance worker safety, productivity and well-being.

What, Exactly, Is a Beacon?

In simple terms, a beacon is a device that continuously transmits a radio signal that identifies itself. For example, a beacon in a hardware store could identify itself as located in the power tools department. While the concept of beacons is not new, incorporating Bluetooth smart technology (also known as Bluetooth Low Energy or BLE) into smartphones running cloud-driven apps has been the major driver in the growth of beacon technology, making it a foundational part of the Internet of Things (IoT).

The use of BLE has reduced the cost and complexity of installation and extended runtimes from months to years. The continued growth of smartphones and cloud-driven apps have allowed a simple and ubiquitous way to interact with beacons.

In most cases, beacons continuously transmit a unique identification number (known as an UUID). This UUID is received by a mobile device such as a smartphone. The mobile device calculates the distance from the beacon and, in combination with the UUID, triggers a context-specific action in a beacon-specific app. For example, if a visitor to a museum is standing for a while in front of the Mona Lisa, the smart phone would sense this through a beacon attached to the painting and trigger the visitor’s smartphone to go to the Mona Lisa Wikipedia page to provide more information about the painting.

Apple and Google dominate the beacon marketplace today. Apple iBeacons were the first to hit the market in 2014, closely followed by Google’s Eddystone beacons in 2015.

Other beacon standards are beginning to emerge as beacons find new and diverse applications.

Beacons and Health & Safety

While current beacon applications are exciting, as health and safety professionals we are driven by a more noble purpose – keeping people safe in their workplaces. How can this beacon technology help keep people safe on the job?

We see four broad application classes for beacons in workplace safety:

1. Location, location, location – Knowing where your people are, especially when they are in distress, is invaluable in the quest for zero incidents. Beacons provide a cost-effective and scalable solution. Beacons, while simple to install, also allow for a wide range in location monitoring, from a range of 100 feet all the way down to a few feet, depending on the application.

Unlike GPS-based systems that work only outdoors with a clear view of the sky, beacons work indoors or outdoors. Hazardous areas such as confined spaces, by their very nature, preclude access to a clear open sky, making GPS-based systems ineffective.
 
Wi-Fi-based location systems triangulate on signal strength of Wi-Fi access points to determine the location of people and assets. While Wi-Fi-based location monitoring works indoors and outdoors, it requires a high density of access points, making it cost-prohibitive. Typical Wi-Fi installations are optimized for coverage and require significant investment to convert to support location monitoring. Beacons provide a means to enhance Wi-Fi-based location systems without increasing the density of access points. Beacons – along with a conventional Wi-Fi installation optimized for coverage – can be a cost-effective way to introduce location monitoring to areas with conventional Wi-Fi coverage.

Similarly, beacons can improve the accuracy of smartphone location services that triangulate on cell tower signal strength. Without beacons, locations provided by smartphones can be very inaccurate indoors (~+/- 1000 ft).

2. Zoning and context-specific messages – Often the exact location (latitude/longitude) of a worker is less relevant. Instead, safety managers would like to trigger certain actions if a person is within a fence line or zone. For example, a worker can be warned to wear a certain piece of personal protective equipment (PPE) (e.g. hearing protection) when he is in a particular area (e.g. near heavy machinery). Further, in case of emergencies, mustering information can be sent by the beacon and customized based on the worker’s location.

These messages, alarms or notifications can be triggered on a smartphone or other BLE smart device carried by the worker. A number of PPE manufacturers are beginning to create smart PPE (based on BLE) that can be used to trigger these context-specific alerts. For example, a BLE-enabled gas detector can warn the user if an electronic permit has not been approved before entering a confined space.

3. Proximity detection – The above applications have involved beacons mounted on fixed locations, but they also can be mounted on moving platforms such as forklifts. This opens up a whole class of applications such a proximity detection and warnings. Workers can be warned, or the truck/machinery automatically stopped, when they are close to a collision with moving hazards.

4. Asset tracking – Beacons can be made extremely small and, given their power-efficient nature, can be run on coin cell batteries for years. This allows beacons to be placed on workers (as badges) or on PPE they wear, allowing real time asset/people tracking. Compared to RFIDs that traditionally are used in this role, beacon-based asset tracking does not require scanning and can work from a distance. For example, a worker in a particular area quickly can be identified without scanning his badge. This can be very helpful at mustering points in the event of an emergency.

A number of PPE manufacturers are beginning to incorporate beaconing technology in their products to create smart PPE that helps not just track, but actively manage, the safety of their users.

Challenges to Widespread Adoption for Workplace Safety

The growth in beacons predominantly has been driven by retail applications; so the vast majority of beacons in the market are ill-suited for industrial applications. Most beacon hardware in the market today is designed for rather benign retail environments and is not ruggedized enough for industrial applications. The equipment lacks appropriate ingress protection ratings and other certifications that allow it to be used in classified hazardous locations.

Furthermore, the prominent beacon technologies such as iBeacon and Eddystone are optimized for commercial applications and, as such, need to be enhanced to support many of the aforementioned industrial applications.

These challenges are beginning to be addressed with the launch of intrinsically safe beacons combined with smart PPE-based beaconing technology optimized for industrial safety applications. We expect this trend to continue with more companies and products becoming available in this fast growing segment.

Workplace safety is a multi-faceted problem that requires the combination of both technological and non-technical tools. Beacons are a new and exciting development that is poised to revolutionize workplace safety. Manufacturers are beginning to adopt this technology to transform conventional passive PPE to smart PPE devices that actively sense and protect the users from ever changing dangers in the workplace.

As safety managers, you might want to consider beacon-based solutions as another tool to keep your employees safe and moving toward zero incidents.    

Raghu Arunachalam, Ph.D., is the CEO of ActiveBlu Corp. Scott Jubeck is director of product management, instrumentation at Industrial Scientific Corp.