AMITIAE - Saturday 8 March 2014

Travel Radar: iPhone App Using iBeacon Technology for Tracking Luggage

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By Graham K. Rogers

Travel Radar

When my box of Estimote beacons first arrived, I gave members of the Faculty information about the technology, hoping to stir up some interest. There were some intelligent questions and I was hard put to answer a couple. One on battery life prompted me to recruit a student to cut a beacon open to take a look inside.

iBeacon When I suggested installing iBeacons at the Faculty, another colleague suggested a hospital, but also wondered if personnel (doctors, nurses) could carry iBeacons so they would set off a warning when arriving at a specific location. I was not sure about that, but it may not have been as far off track as I thought.

Since the iBeacons arrived, I have been testing software that gives technical information if iBeacons have been deployed. So far, I have found none in Bangkok, apart from those I now keep in my office and the one I have at home. For a while, I did keep that one in my backpack, and the iPhone was displaying information on this all the time as the app detected this.

With around 400-500 seats on a Boeing 747, or just over 800 on an all-economy Airbus A380, that could be a long wait for all those bags to be unloaded. I cover my suitcase with stickers to make it easy to spot, but still have to watch until the bag is actually on the carousel.

A heads-up from Jim Dalrymple on the Loop revealed an app that takes advantage of this mobile feature of the iBeacon by allowing an owner to be warned when a bag arrives at an airport baggage carousel: Travel Radar - Luggage Tracking for iBeacon. The app is not expensive at $1.99 and was developed by Bernd Plontsch (in Berlin). If you have ever had to wait until your bags were the last to arrive (or as I experienced once with TWA not to arrive) that could mean a long time standing around.

When first started, a user is required to enter an identifier in the simple panel. The whole multi-character number needs to be typed in unless the user is able to use a copy and paste function. A couple of the apps would not allow the data to be copied, although the Estimote app did have this function. To make it hard for myself (deliberately), instead of using cut and paste, I switched between the identifying apps I have installed and the Travel Radar app while typing in the identifier. I did have to correct a couple of errors on the way.

As soon as I had entered the identifier correctly, along with the Major and Minor numbers, the iBeacon was identified and the app displayed an approximate distance on the screen. There are three ways the app shows information: tracking, tracked, or not in range.

Travel Radar Travel Radar Travel Radar

Tracking luggage; luggage tracked; luggage not in range

Although the apartment is not large, the signal was not detected in the bathroom. In my last house the bathroom also had poor signal reception for Wi-Fi and the telephone. As I walked back towards my office area, there was a notification on the home screen that the beacons had been detected and was 3 metres away.

Travel Radar A better demonstration was when I went out for a few hours. On my return, I checked the iPhone before opening the door of the apartment and then walked inside. When I had taken a couple of paces, the app displayed a discovery message on the notifications screen showing a distance of 5 metres. This was followed by several more, although the distances shown varied between 1 and 18 metres. I do not live in a large apartment.

As always with Bluetooth devices, the signal will vary depending on various factors, including distance and materials between source and detector. While I have been writing this, the notification screen has filled with warnings, some with the nice message, "There it is, have a safe trip."

As with the iPhone and iPad, developers are always finding new uses for the devices. Within a few months of the technology starting to be deployed, here we have another possibility, which itself opens up more potential

The idea behind iBeacons is to make use of a reaction from a smartphone that has suitable software installed when it is in range of a beacon that identifies it. This operation with Travel Radar is a reverse of what normally happens, but there is no problem in that: as the phone and the bag come closer, so a message will appear.

There may be other uses, for example school bags (or even the students themselves); bags with computers, or other higher value contents; and there are sure to be other uses not yet considered. Entering a specific identifier in this way locks the app into that device only, so there is no chance of taking away another person's bag (or child).

In my brief experience, I think that it might be useful if there were an easier way to identify an iBeacon so the multi-character number could be entered more easily. It would also be useful if the screen notification feature could be turned off. Information in the app tells me that it should stop working after a while, but as the phone moved around, so notifications kept appearing. An additional feature that might be useful is if the app could also signal when the bag (or person) went out of range: that might help with the many computer thefts at airports and shopping malls.

See also:

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand where he is also Assistant Dean. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs.



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