Japan Airlines, Aeon Mall Test Solar-Powered Bluetooth Beacons

The two pilot projects are using a Dai Nippon Printing Co. solution, made with Spansion's beacons.
Published: January 23, 2015

Japan Airlines is carrying out a Bluetooth beacon pilot project at 13 airports, using a solution provided by Dai Nippon Printing Co. (DNP). A similar pilot is being conducted by Aeon Mall at some of its locations in Japan.

At each site, DNP has installed Spansion‘s MB39C811 Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons, which come with energy-harvesting power-management integrated circuits (PMICs), as well as a solar panel to capture power from the light and use that power to transmit data. DNP’s beacon solution helps identify location data, which Japan Airlines and Aeon Mall can then employ in their own apps installed on customers’ smartphones, in order to provide those individuals with relevant data.

Spansion’s MB39C811 beacon comes with a solar panel, eliminating the need for a battery if the light level is adequate for generating sufficient power.

DNP, based in Japan, provides information media, printed materials, small cards and other technologies. However, the company is expanding its business into other markets, such as electronic devices and display components. Recently, the firm has begun developing a solution consisting of the solar-powered BLE beacons and DNP back-end software, to help users identify an app user’s location, and thereby direct relevant information or media content to that individual’s phone.

DNP calls the airport initiative with Japan Airlines the iBeacon Project. It launched the project on Oct. 9, 2014, with at least one beacon installed at each of the many entrance gates for departing domestic flights at 13 Japanese airports. The objective of the project, which is slated to end later this year, is to provide passengers with up-to-date information regarding their flights, and to enable them to automatically access boarding passes via a mobile phone app. They could then move through check-in more easily by showing the boarding passes to airport personnel.

Because the beacons were installed in low-light areas of the airport, USB connections are being used to supply additional power.

First, users download the latest version of JAL’s Countdown application from iTunes, which many of the airline’s customers already use to obtain such information as flight delays or weather at destination cities. The JAL uses a software development kit from DNP to add functionality for the use of the beacons and DNP’s back-end beacon software. When a user arrives at a gate equipped with a beacon, the phone detects a transmission from that beacon, the unique ID number of which links to the specific gate. The Countdown app, which JAL recently updated to support beacon technology, then opens a Web page that displays the passenger’s flight data. The beacon can also launch the display of the boarding pass on that person’s phone, so that he or she can simply show the phone to the ticket agent at the gate. The beacon-enabled Countdown app operates only on iOS phones. JAL offers an Android version of its Countdown app, but currently does not support the use of beacons, though it might do so in the future, says Go Obara, Dai Nippon Printing’s assistant manager of communication and information operations.

Obara says his company has worked with beacons before (when developing BLE solutions), but found that their power requirements, or the need to replace their batteries, made the devices inconvenient to use. Batteries typically needed to be replaced every three to 12 months, he says. “The battery life of beacons has been the bottleneck of this service,” Obara states. “We found Spansion’s energy-harvesting solution at some tradeshow, and regarded it as a breakthrough for this issue.”

Although light conditions at the airport were too dim to power the beacons via Spansion’s energy-harvesting technology, such is not the case for the Aeon Mall sites, where DNP is installing beacons to transmit data to arriving shoppers. In this case, a beacon is being installed at the entranceway between the parking area and the mall itself. Shoppers can download the mall’s app, which works with iOS devices and is expected to become available for Android phones in the future. Upon entering the mall, an individual receives an alert on his or her smartphone—provided that the phone is running the app— welcoming that person to the mall and instructing him or her about any store sales underway that might be of interest.

Designed to be easy to install, the energy-harvesting beacon measures 35 millimeters by 65 millimeters by 11 millimeters (1.4 inches by 2.6 inches by 0.4 inch), and weigh 15 grams (0.5 ounce). The solar panel on the device is about half the size of a business card. Spansion also makes an outdoor version that harvests light via a different type of solar panel with a high resistance to ultraviolet light, according to Keita Sekine, a senior product marketing engineer at Spansion’s analog business unit. The beacon is also able to harvest energy via piezoelectric technology, converting mechanical strain caused by vibration or other movement. (The mall and airport installations, however, do not use the piezoelectric feature.) In addition, a coin battery can be added if additional power is required. Alternatively, the beacon’s mini-USB port can be connected to a USB power source.

The MB39C811 beacon (which, to date, is being offered commercially only as a development kit) also comes with a temperature sensor, though DNP is not employing that sensor for the two pilots. Spansion is currently taking orders for the development kit.

“We are expecting [to review] the results of these studies,” Sekine reports, “and will leverage for the next step.” Those results are expected later this year.