Bluetooth item trackers are all the rage if the Interwebs are to be believed. These gadgets are dog tag sized devices designed to be tucked into a wallet, stuck to mobile items, or added to a key ring. They are basically Bluetooth 4 beacon devices that advertise their presence. To be an item tracker, they need to do little more. Just play Marco Polo with a mobile or other compatible Bluetooth device. About 5 or 6 companies make these things with another entering the market every few months. Most fundraiser on Indigogo so that is a good place to keep an eye peeled for new developments in this space.
The first is a link to a TrackR Bravo referral code. The second is a link to the Indigogo campaign of the European upstart mentioned below. One of the perpetrators designed Steve Jobs yacht. The third is a link to the TrackR Atlas Indigogo campaign. The fourth is Wikipedia on Bluetooth 4.0 protocol.
Web reviews can be stale
Things are highly fluid in this space, especially with the application. Most brands get the hardware right and the app usable then go to market. Once launched, they continually improve the app to fix problems and refine the user interface. Last season’s review on Engadget or Gizmodo will not reflect the current product experience.
My personal opinion is that the advertising copy writers are overselling these devices but that they can be useful if you understand their capabilities and limitations and use them within those capabilities and limitations. I’m writing this article to offer you my understanding of these devices and their application in hopes that this will spare you some disappointment and help the product category find its niche.
Apps and beacons don’t currently interoperate. It would be nice if a single app would support multiple beacon families because manufacturers are tailoring the devices for different applications using different packaging. For example, one is credit card sized for use in wallets. Another is packaged for pet tagging. Some are thicker to have longer battery life.
Not for life-safety use
The Bluetooth beacons don’t work well enough to serve as a wander alert for people or pets. The desire to keep them low power and small prohibits putting a GPS receiver and cellular radio in the device which means that location must be indirect. When a receiver hears a beacon, it reports its position and the beacon ID to HQ and HQ notifies you if it is one of yours. This is what TrackR calls “crowd GPS”. It is not a substitute for the real thing when it comes to life safety.
Dave dips a toe in the waters
TrackR, one of the better known brands in the US, held a buy one get one sale between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Having purchased a new car that has high tech keys, and having successfully laundered one of my two keys (it lived, this time), I decided some precautions are in order. Can a Bluetooth tracker be helpful? So I bought 2 pair, one to go on the keys and one to go on the houndies.
My trackers arrived shortly before Christmas so I downloaded the app, set up the trackers one at a time so that they would actually be attached to the things they were named for, and gave them a try.
The pairing process is simple. You download the App, get an account from the manufacturer, and pair each critter. The pairing starts with the app and the mechanics are app specific. Basically, you tell the app to listen for a tracker, you press a button on the tracker to start it advertising, and the app finds and logs the device. The app will ask you to name the device. Once the device is named, setup is complete and you can move on to the next.
What the beacons do
The beacons announce themselves and listen for the controlling terminal. On command from the controlling terminal, they begin chirping. On a second command, they stop chirping. The beacons are always announcing at a low rate to save battery while allowing themselves to be detected
The controlling terminal listens for the beacons. The Bluetooth 4 protocol lets the beacon report the transmitted power. The receiver includes the received signal strength along with the packet. This lets the terminal indicate if the beacons is near (within a meter or so), close by (within 5 meters), or distant (can be heard but faintly). The protocol does not allow the terminal to determine a bearing or a range.
How are beacons most useful?
I bought my TrackR Bravos with the intent of finding the car keys when they went missing and with the hopes that they would prove useful with my hounds.
The Marco Polo process is slow and the radio is weak so it is unlikely that a Bluetooth tracker will prove useful in locating a walkabout houndy, I was hoping that I could tell if Nick was exploring a neighbor’s back garden from the street but the radio strength and dynamics just don’t permit it to see a moving greyhound. So dog recovery the old fashioned way, check each back garden.
Trackers do work well for the missing key problem however. Tell missing keys to sound off. If the sound comes from the washer drum, you’ve just averted trouble. The TrackR Bravo makes a distinctive chirp using an FM modulated pulse that rises in volume and frequency. You won’t mistake it for the fridge door ajar alarm, the oven timer, or incoming SMS alert. It is distinctive but not very loud. It might be hard to hear in a noisy environment or across a large room. And not from the neighbor’s back garden. But it can be heard from a pocket, a laundry bin, or washer drum with the door open.
Locating your mobile
Location works both ways. Pushing a button on the TrackR fob will cause your mobile to sound off. Much more convenient that firing up Find My iPhone if you know the phone is in the house. You may have to send the wake-up in multiple rooms but it does work. The ping is different than the one Apple uses but it can be differentiated from most normal phone noises.
Digression on modern car keys
My VW keys have survived a run through the wash but the dryer will probably fry their brains. Modern keys have RFID transponders and near field transponders that open car doors and allow you to start the car. The transponder ID is matched to the vehicle and the vehicle responds only to the registered transponders. That means you can’t go to Home Depot to have a key cut for a few dollars. It is back to the dealer for expensive parts and a hour of tech time to pair the new key to the vehicle. And if your vehicle is old, you may have to wait for Black Forest elves to make a replacement. So caution is good.
TrackR Atlas, Greyhound Doorbell?
TrackR has an Indigogo project to raise funds for a device they call TrackR Atlas. Atlas is a night light sized plugin terminal that listens for beacons from all manufacturers. Put one Atlas device in each room to be covered and it will tell you by WiFi what can be heard in that room. The app can be configured to give an alert when a devices enters and leaves Atlas’s earshot.
So, what might this be good for? A greyhound door bell? They never remember to ring the bell. And they may bark once to call you to the door. The bark is optional. So, what happens if I plug in a TrackR Atlas on the back stoop? Will it tell me when a houndy comes up on the stoop? Probably. Most of the time. I can come to the door and let them in.
TrackR Atlas is the first product brought to my attention that will report other maker’s beacons. If you have a Tile or one of the European brands, you can use them with TrackR Atlas. One French brand has an Indigogo to launch their products in the US. To differentiate themseves, they chose to use a bigger battery and go for 100 meters range vs the 10 meters or so that a TrackR Bravo can manage.
So Won’t Ring Announce the Dogs?
I had considered using a Ring doorbell for this task but the motion sensor gives a fair number of cry wolfs from passing traffic. Having an emitter on the hound solves the motion detector cry wolf problem. If only Tracker would make the TrackR Atlas device outdoor temperature rated. Basically, it needs to work from -40F to 120F or so, operating temperature, not storage. Mine is under canopy sparing it the summer sun. It does not need to be drip proof as electrical code outdoor outlet assemblies are required to be drip proof in the US.
So, what happens if your dog goes walkabout at the park? That’s where “crowd GPS” comes in. Each TrackR app listens for all TrackR beacons, not just the ones paired to it. When a mobile hears a TrackR, it reports the TrackR UUID and the phone’s location to TrackR world headquarters. World HQ tells your phone where your beacon was heard. This mechanism has successfully recovered walkabout dogs in an urban environment.
One of the TrackR sales pages shows where TrackR apps are active. Just where they are, no identifying information. This gives you a feel for coverage in your city and neighborhood. There are several instances of the App active in within a few miles of home. Not enough to find a walkabout dog.