Indoor Positioning Systems – Transforming the Location-based Application Landscape

By Suraj Kumar

While global positioning systems (GPS) remain the most important tool for outdoor navigation, it requires the receiver to have an unobstructed line of sight to satellites. Due to the weakening of signals by building construction materials, the satellite based GPS signal loses substantial power indoors. Thus, all mobile location-based apps, like navigation, are unable to work inside airports, malls, subways, etc. In addition, GPS cannot provide information about the floor and building level where the user is located.

These factors are becoming a real challenge for the next generation of location-based-services applications and highlights the need for a system where a user can be located inside a building accurately and precisely to make positioning and navigation inside indoors as easy as outdoors

Indoor Navigation

*(1,2)

So how does the Indoor Positioning System Work?

Instead of using satellites, an Indoor Positioning System (IPS) relies on nearby anchors (nodes with a known position), which either actively locate tags or provide environmental context for devices to sense *(3).  IPS can be completely local to one’s smartphone (or other portable navigation device) and can create a location fix completely passively.

Rise of the Beacon

Unlike GPS, there isn’t a standard way of building an indoor positioning system. Following are the list of supporting/ evolving technologies.

Types

Though systems using Wi-Fi received signal strength (RSS) and RFIDs are gaining popularity, they are unable to achieve the sub-meter accuracy required for many indoor wireless sensor networks (WSN) applications such as personnel tracking in crowded airports. For high-precision indoor localization, companies are increasingly looking at beacons

Beacons are sensors that send out Bluetooth low energy (BLE) tracking tags.  These sensors can be placed around a venue and a mobile device can pick up the BLE signal and determine that it is in close proximity. When a mobile app is built off of this technology, it can be used in interesting ways to interact with the end user, such as notifying a customer of a promotion for an item they are close to.

Beacons have the advantage of being inexpensive and easy to deploy, and they can provide granular, proximity-based indoor location for an enhanced guest experience.  This enables organizations to communicate to their consumers based on their precise location, and when combined with other indoor navigation technologies, can provide highly accurate tracking.

Enabling innovative applications in a mobile connected world

With beacons, airlines and airports can auto-detect the user’s presence inside the mall using geo-fencing technology and will know exactly on which floor the user is located. Knowing where a passenger is before sending information enables more effective communication.

a. Displaying mobile boarding passes – When placed at key passenger touch-points, such as check-in, bag drop, passport control and departure gates, beacons can help in loading the mobile boarding passes to the display of the passenger’s smartphone when they approach the checkpoint.

b. Navigating through Airport– Beacons, being more accurate than Wi-Fi and cellular signal-based alternatives, can enable airport apps to guide passengers around the terminal to find their gate.

Airport Navigation

c. Customized Content for Passengers – Airlines can combine the passenger information (available through the downloaded airline app) with an accurate knowledge of their location in the airport (available through the beacon). With this information, the airline can send customized information to the passenger, redirect them to the correct lounge and also locate them in the airport in case of any delays. Airports can use this sort of technology to track users entering and leaving certain secure areas such as server rooms and to track occupancy during emergency events ensuring that no one is left behind.

Customized content

d. Reclaiming Baggages – Passengers arriving at the airport would be able to receive a message which tells them the carousel number in which their baggage would arrive on and the length of their waiting time.

Baggage

e. Optimizing Processes: Beacons can be used to improve business processes within an organization. It can help managers locate their frontline staff and allot tasks to them based on their location at that particular moment.

Beacons can be also used in Airline cargo for real-time inventory tracking of items entering or leaving the warehouse. The system (built around beacons, a beacon management platform and warehouse database) can automatically alert relevant staff upon shortage or surplus of inventory in an area and also collect logistics data. Inventory visibility helps in reducing needless losses because of unavailability of the product

Airlines and Airports Leading the Way!

Airlines across the world have started beacon trials to not only ensure up-to-date and relevant information on their passenger’s mobile devices in airports but also improve their own business processes.

American Airlines recently launched an iBeacon trial at the Dallas Forth Worth Airport. A small group of customers with the American Airlines app got notifications to help them navigate the airport better including information like distance to gates, boarding times and the closest security check lines

Japan Airlines started an iBeacon trial earlier this year in Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. The airline’s staff was equipped with smartphones allowing the company to locate staff members and assign specific tasks to them. Their ground staff could also get updates on company information and flight status updates helping the airline use beacon technology to improve their business processes

Virgin Atlantic conducted an iBeacon trial at London’s Heathrow Airport with its premium passengers able to receive personalized notifications and offers. Virgin used beacons to alert customers to have their electronic boarding passes ready when they were close to a private security check, and to send tailored offers like commission-free currency exchange deals to passengers in the departures section of the airport. Virgin also used beacon tech to let passengers know about in-flight entertainment specials before they boarded the plane, and to let their staff know when temperatures dropped on outdoor decks of their airport lounges so they could give blankets to passengers.

Easyjet piloted Bluetooth beacons at three European airports which were used to trigger notifications on a passenger’s mobile device during the critical points of the airport journey. These include bag drop and security, and to prompt a passenger to open their boarding pass at the right time.

Miami International Airport recently became the first airport in the world to deploy beacons across the entire airport. The beacons covered airport entrances, check-in, gates, baggage claim, the valet parking zones throughout the airport, and even the airport’s sky train.

Conclusion

While there are definitely some challenges in the implementation of beacons in the travel industry- the fear of privacy invasion, the increase in difficulty of installation in large airports, problems with bandwidth usage and the need to ensure that the beacons don’t cross signals to name a few, the beacon technology seems to be a natural fit for the travel industry and is all set to transform the sector in the coming years.

About the Author

SurajSuraj Kumar is working as a Lead Technology Consultant with the Mobility CoE at IGT Solutions. With a Bachelor of Engineering degree in Information Technology from NSIT(Delhi University) and a Post Graduate Diploma in Management degree from Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, Suraj has over 5 years of IT experience in Mobile Application Development, Business Analysis, Mobile Strategy Formulation, Mobility Consulting and  Pre Sales Consulting activities. Prior to working with IGT, Suraj has worked with Aricent Technologies as a senior mobile application developer and was responsible for product development, client engagement and delivery activities with several clients including HTC, YTL Communication etc. Suraj can be reached at mktg@www.igtsolutions.com

References:

  1. Indoor Location Market by Positioning Systems (Network-based, Independent, Hybrid), Maps and Navigation, Location based analytics, Location based services, Monitoring and emergency services – Worldwide Market Forecasts and Analysis (2014 – 2019)
  2. ABI Research
  3. Eoghan Furey, Kevin Curran and Paul Mc Kevitt (2012) HABITS: A Bayesian Filter Approach to Indoor Tracking and Location. International Journal of Bio-Inspired Computation (IJBIC) Vol. 4, No. 2, pp: 79-88, ISSN: 1758-0366, DOI: 10.1504/IJBIC.2012.047178, InderScience

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