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New Beacon Solution Offers Low-Cost Supply Chain Visibility

Roambee's BeeBeacon system consists of small, low-cost beacon devices and Bee hubs to receive transmissions, using BLE, GSM or Wi-Fi connectivity to track goods in large volume through warehouses, on ships and vehicles, and at stores.
By Claire Swedberg
Nov 03, 2017

California technology company Roambee has commercially released a low-cost Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), GSM and Wi-Fi-based solution for tracking the locations and conditions of assets and inventory throughout the supply chain, for approximately 3 cents a day per tracked item. The system consists of BeeBeacons to transmit data via BLE, Bees that act as hubs or "hot spots" to collect that data, and a cloud-based server that manages and contextualizes data for users. The BLE-based system serves as an alternative to technology such as radio frequency identification (RFID), the company reports, since it can provide visibility of a tagged item—whether inside, outside, or in motion—at a relatively low cost.

Roambee was launched in Santa Clara in 2014 to develop sensor-based asset- and inventory-management solutions. It first released the Bee, which can transmit data to a server via a cellular or Wi-Fi network. This year, after several months of piloting the technology it developed, the company is now offering BeeBeacons in large volume, as well as the BeeFleet vehicle-management device and BeeLock to monitor who is authorized to unlock a container or vehicle via BLE. The company's founders, who came from RFID firm KeyTone Technologies, had hoped to develop a system that could track goods and assets at a lower cost than RFID (which requires a reader infrastructure that is not necessarily mobile), explains Sanjay Sharma, the company's co-founder and CEO.

Roambee's Sanjay Sharma
The founders developed the Bee GPS-based tracker device, which it leases to customers. It has built-in Wi-Fi and GSM cellular connectivity, BLE and GPS functionalities, and cameras (see Burglars Stung by IoT Bees in Santa Clara). "We've been bringing pieces together to realize our original vision for RFID," Sharma states. "We know where RFID works well and where it doesn't, and we are targeting uses cases where RFID doesn't work well."

Sharma cites the tracking of goods in cartons or on pallets that are in motion. Companies want to know where their goods are and when, he says—and, in some cases, they also want to know the status, based on sensor measurements. The Bee is a mobile device that can be attached to a vehicle, container or pallet, and can transmit its own unique ID number and GPS- or BLE-based location via GSM or Wi-Fi. However, Sharma says, the company spoke with customers who wanted to track not only a particular pallet, but the many cartons or products that might be loaded onto it. The Bee itself would be too expensive to make that kind of use case affordable, he explains, whereas passive RFID tags would require an RFID reader, and most passive RFID tags cannot transmit sensor data.

The solution Roambee developed is the BeeBeacon, a small, battery-powered device that comes with a built-in temperature and humidity sensor, as well as a light sensor for tamper detection, if requested. The BeeBeacons capture data on a 10-second interval and transmit that information, along with their unique IDs. The transmission is then captured by a Bee hub, which interprets the data and forwards it to Roambee's cloud-based server via a cellular or Wi-Fi connection. The server software manages that data and shares relevant content to users to indicate where goods are located, as well as their status, every 10 seconds.

Typically, a BeeBeacon—which is about the size of a coin—could be placed inside a carton and then be activated. It has a built-in battery that lasts for about four years, so it can be reusable. Users can acquire the BeeBeacons and the Bees from Roambee at no cost, but would then need to pay approximately $1 each month (3 cents per day) to access that data.

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