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What is the difference between three most popular technologies which are used to build location services – Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and UWB?

3 July 2017 by Bartłomiej Rogacewicz

We’ve been working in IndoorNavi for a while. We changed the technology which we used to build our system. We implemented our navigation in the big business center in Gdansk and got data which showed us, what should be the next step to make indoor navigation a real thing. Every day our hardware specialists test proximity sensors, algorithms, and other devices, which are used to build the world of tomorrow, the future – industry 4.0. That’s why we make this comparison of technologies which you can read below.

Basically, we can build location service using Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Low Energy or Ultra Wide Band technology. But what are the differences between them and what will be best for you?

Let’s start with Wi-Fi.

It is a technology which people usually use to connect to the router which provides the Internet access. It is based on IP protocol and can easily measure the strength of the signal. Its main advantage is the fact that people rarely turn off Wi-Fi modules in their smartphones. So every router in your object can easily detect any smartphone. In principle, if you provided a free WiFi access to the customers in your object, you would be able to easily find out what they are doing and how are they navigating in your object, as well as bring them some value – free access to the Internet. On the other hand, it’s not cool to monitor and track somebody’s activity without acknowledging him or her and getting their agreement for this process.

But we can assume that you got all of the “I know and I agree for being tracked” – agreements.

Even though building a system based on Wi-Fi is still not as easy as it may seem, because of the limitations of this technology. Wireless local area network is not meant to be used to build location services. That’s why the only way to measure the position of an object is to measure the strength of the signal between the router and its phone. It may seem to be okay, but Wi-Fi has some vulnerabilities. First of all, the power of the signal depends on the material through which it penetrates. So if you want to compare two situations – one when there are 20 people in a room, to the other, when there is a person in the same exact room, the results will be completely different.

It may not seem to be a huge problem until we look at the Trilateration Technique for WiFi-Based Indoor Localization report, usually a measurement error is more than 2 meters!
This corresponds to the width of the alley in the shop! What is more, Wi-Fi is really demanding for batteries in today’s smartphones.

That’s why we built our first beacons using Bluetooth Low Energy technology three years ago. It definitely demands less juice to be used than Wi-Fi. What is more, it does not harass users’ privacy, because if somebody wants to use our system, they have to assure us that they agree to turn on location services on their device to use our app. So they can benefit from the technology when they want to, not when somebody else does. Finally, implementation of beacons in an object is quite simple. It took us a month to do so in Gdansk Science and Technology Park (read more about this process here). However, when the whole system started to work and first customers started to use it, we figured out that this technology has some issues. Even, when a customer has turned on Bluetooth module in his phone, visibility of the device is limited by default. To provide a secure way of wireless connection Bluetooth technology would usually make your phone invisible after 2 minutes to every device which hasn’t been paired with your phone. So a beacon would not be able to collect data. So, in addition to the fact that the Bluetooth position measurement is also based on signal strength, which makes the results very inaccurate, your system can easily lose access to the user’s smartphone after 2 minutes.

 

That’s why our newest iteration of IndoorNavi is fully based on Ultra Wide Band technology and brings our partners’ incredibly accurate results. Here’s a short demo:

But let’s go back to the UWB technology for a while to explain how it works and why it is the best technology to build indoor navigation.

The most important thing is the fact that it is a technology which is meant to be used to build location services. That’s why we chose it and today we are able to provide a system which can measure unit locations to within 10 centimeters. It is twenty times more accurate! Even if a number of people in a room change as we mentioned it above! It doesn’t affect the performance of the system because UWB measures a position of the unit using short messages sent between devices instead of measuring the strength of the signal! That’s why the data which IndoorNavi provides is extremely accurate.

What is more, when you implement anchors and tags in your building and its infrastructure (i.e. shopping carts), your customers wouldn’t have to do anything to make the system work. Obviously, it won’t hurt batteries in their smartphones, too!

Finally, if indoor navigation system in your building is based on UWB technology, you wouldn’t have to hire an army of service personnel to take care of it, because all anchors and tags can be easily updated via mesh network!

So if you choose a legit provider of an indoor navigation system, you would have a reliable system with all needed support, which would be able to operate for years instead of months!