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Fathom Beacon Hub Tracks Buses, Other Objects in Real Time

The product, being launched now, will enable companies to capture the locations of Bluetooth Low Energy beacons within a few meters and thereby know when and where a beacon has been moved.
By Claire Swedberg
Nov 30, 2016

Fathom, a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology startup, has released its first product: a device designed to discover and locate Bluetooth beacons and Bluetooth-using smartphones or tablets within its vicinity. Virginia's Blacksburg Transit has piloted the device, known as the Fathom Hub, to identify the locations of transit buses when they are parked in its garage, and thereby better manage the dispatching and maintenance of those vehicles.

Fathom, based in Vancouver, Canada, grew out of RxNetworks, which has provided GPS-based technology for outdoor positioning for the past 10 years. RxNetworks' solutions include a service that provides location data for Enhanced 911 (e911) calls made via cellphones throughout North America. Fathom represents a foray into indoor location data using BLE technology. The Fathom Hub is intended for use with off-the-shelf beacons, to enable users to manage the locations of their beacons in real time.

Throughout Blacksburg Transit's garage, the Fathom Hub acts as a gateway device that locates beacons in real time.
Most beacon deployments already in use provide content to an individual's smartphone, explains Shawn Bouchard, Fathom's marketing director, based on that user's location as determined by the beacon transmissions received by his or her devices. However, Bouchard adds, there have been some shortcomings to this use-case of the technology. Beacons that should be stationary may be moved, knocked down or removed, or their batteries may expire. Those deploying a beacon network may be unaware that a problem exists, and smartphone users within the vicinity will thus receive the wrong notifications or information, or none at all when needed.

In addition, beacons could be attached to moving objects, using a Bluetooth receiver (such as a mobile phone or tablet) to track their locations. However, that method works only if the receiver can identify where the transmission is originating.

Blacksburg Transit's Tim Witten
The Fathom Hub acts as a gateway device that locates beacons in real time. As a beacon emits a unique identifier, the Hub receives those transmissions. The device is shaped like a hexagon, approximately seven inches in width, with antennas built inside that identify changes in the transmissions, thereby approximating the location within about 1 to 3 meters (3.3 to 9.8 feet). The Hub then forwards the data back to a server via an Ethernet cable or Wi-Fi connection.

Blacksburg Transit already had GeLo beacons installed on all 47 of its buses (see Blacksburg Transit Installs Beacons to Boost Ridership, Adjust Service), as well as mounted to signposts at bus stops. The company provided its BT4U mobile app, which employs an app user's smartphone as a beacon receiver to capture beacon transmissions. The app provided passengers with scheduled arrival times for the buses serving their route, enabling riders to verify that they boarded the correct vehicle. The apps also tracked when a bus reached each bus stop, based on the beacon installed at that stop's signpost.

However, says Tim Witten, Blacksburg Transit's manager for intelligent transportation systems (ITS), the transit company removed those beacons from the bus-stop signs in summer 2016, because GeLo had gone out of business and he wanted to save the extra beacons to replace those installed on buses, as required. Meanwhile, he recalls, Blacksburg found another way to use its beacon system: helping its passengers to reclaim items they had inadvertently left behind on a bus. Riders who downloaded the app could use it to determine which bus they took on a day in which they misplaced a scarf, bag or other item. They could then use to app to transmit that information to the lost-and-found services at the transit company, which would then locate that specific vehicle in the storage garage at the end of the day, or contact the driver.

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