Ifinity to Test Energy-Harvesting Bluetooth Beacons in Malls

By Claire Swedberg

The Polish company has developed a beacon that collects ambient RF energy; meanwhile, its battery-powered beacons are being used in Warsaw to provide navigation assistance to the visually impaired.

Polish Bluetooth beacon technology startup Ifinity is preparing to launch pilot deployments of its energy-harvesting AirBeacon. The button-sized device, which contains no battery, need not be plugged into an outlet, but instead draws power from ambient RF signals.

"As AirBeacons are low-energy transmitters, Ifinity figured out the way to power them up periodically by harvesting electromagnetic waves that surround them," says Krystian Cieślak, Ifinity's chief marketing officer. "Those electromagnetic waves can be generated by an external source, like a power converter, router or simple antenna."

The AirBeacon contains no battery, but instead draws power from ambient RF signals.

Cieślak says his company is presently in discussions with several commercial customers regarding the possibility of piloting the AirBeacons at such locations as shopping malls. The firm hopes to launch pilots by the end of this year, he adds.

Although the pilots have not yet begun, they will typically consist of installing the AirBeacons around a mall or other facility, with RF-emitting devices, such as Wi-Fi routers, deployed at specific locations to feed power to those beacons. Participants could then download an app that would prompt mobile phones to receive beacon transmissions, in order to enable a variety of services, including wayfinding, the delivery of promotional data, managing parking spaces or registering equipment. In the meantime, Ifinity is taking preorders for its AirBeacon developers kit, consisting of three power-harvesting beacons and a software development kit (SDK). The kit is expected to be made available in December 2014, priced at $110.

Currently, Ifinity is offering battery-powered beacons that its founders began providing last year to its customers, including the City of Warsaw, as well as private companies that have asked not yet to be named. The battery-powered beacons, available in several sizes, are manufactured for Ifinity by another company.

This past spring, Cieślak says, Ifinity began installing its MiniTag battery-powered beacons at a single Warsaw government office building, for use in a pilot that is part of the Virtual Warsaw project. That project is intended to provide data to visitors and residents on their mobile phones, to help them better navigate the city and access tourist information. With the initial Ifinity pilot, the city installed beacons within the two-story office building housing the country's disabilities department, in order to provide navigation assistance to employees and visitors with visual impairments.

The entire Virtual Warsaw project was submitted to the Bloomberg Philanthropies' 2013-2014 Mayors Challenge, a competition intended to inspire cities to generate innovative ideas that solve major problems and improve city life. According to Cieślak, Warsaw and its project, based on the above-mentioned micro-location technology, have made it to the finals. The winning city will receive €5 million ($6.5 million) for full implementation of the service. If this happens, the navigation system will be made available at all Warsaw offices, museums and tourist information offices, as well as on public transportation.

The Virtual Warsaw app provides audible navigation instructions and other information, based on the locations of the beacon IDs it receives.

To participate in the Virtual Warsaw pilot, an individual must first download the Ifinity app onto his or her smartphone. When the participant then enters the building, the phone receives the beacon's transmission, and the app-generated voice offers to provide navigation instructions. The participant can then speak into the phone to indicate where he or she would like to go, such as to the disabilities department or the rest room. The app software determines that individual's location, based on the beacon ID received by the phone, and can also offer options—such as taking an elevator or stairs—and provide audible instructions to direct that individual to the chosen destination.

The pilot includes more than 250 participants, Cieślak reports. Once the pilot is completed in late October, he says, the city plans to evaluate the results and determine how effectively the app and beacon technology assisted visitors and employees within the building.

Based on its experience derived from the city's pilot, as well as from installations for shopping mall operators and other private customers, Ifinity found that the requirement for internal battery power could pose an obstacle to many deployments. Even if the beacons' batteries last for two years, Cieślak notes, locating hundreds of beacons throughout a large area to change them all is a daunting task. In addition, if a single beacon's battery expires earlier than the expected two-year life span, it can be difficult to locate that device in order to service it.

The solution to this problem, Ifinity determined, was to eliminate the battery entirely. The AirBeacons instead collect ambient energy from an RF-emitting source. Because the beacons use very little power, the amount of energy they collect from that source can be sufficient to send transmissions at a distance of 20 meters (66 feet) or more.

Krystian Cieślak

In addition, the city intends to launch two more beacon-based pilots as part of Virtual Warsaw: one with the public transit system, to identify the locations of buses for waiting passengers, and another to assist drivers in locating open parking spaces. Those trials will utilize Ifinity's battery-powered beacons, since the batteries are expected to last beyond the life of the pilot itself.

Ifinity specializes in full custom solutions, Cieślak says, and expects most of its customers to require the development of a tailor-made solution, including requirement assessment, the installation and programming of beacons, and the development of an SDK and software applications. "The vision for our company is tailor-made, complex solutions for each individual customer," he states. Although initial deployments have been carried out in Poland, Cieślak adds, the firm intends to market the technology worldwide. "The company focuses on delivering B2B2C [business to business to consumer] solutions in six main areas of business," he says: cities and public administrations, parking spaces, education, health care, galleries and museums.