Why doesn't my Smartphone Prompt me to Buy a Ticket at the Station?

By Pär Håkansson May 3, 2016

shutterstock_267559979-423341-edited.jpgApp development for railway stations and train operators is nothing new. Live departure times and reservations have been available as apps for a while, but it’s still primarily a manual process.
Wouldn’t it be better to just have the app prompt your purchase as soon as you reach the station? Of course it would, and although the technology is available, we are not quite ready for such a change.

Can your train app prompt you to buy tickets at the station today?

App development for railway stations and train operators is nothing new. Live departure times and reservations have been available as apps for a while, but it’s still primarily a manual process.

Wouldn’t it be better to just have the app prompt your purchase as soon as you reach the station? Of course it would, and although the technology is available, we are not quite ready for such a change.

Location based services are getting here

Traditionally, location-aware apps are available thanks to GPS technology. Such apps use geo-fencing to estimate your physical location. Alternatively, your location can be determined by GSM call towers, or tracking the Wi-Fi networks you connect to. More recently a new technology called Bluetooth beacon has become popular for location based services.

Your phone already knows your travel patterns. If you travel the same distance every business day at more or less the same time, you could let your app book your ticket automatically. If you have a more varied travel pattern, your app could prompt you with a few easy-to-select alternatives based on your most frequent journeys.

Or the transport company could turn its ticketing practice upside down, allowing you to pay for your journey as you disembark, by having your connected device inform the company of your journey details.

The technology to enable these business ideas for the Internet of Things is already in place.

> Read also: Spot on: What's next for personal location based services

Bluetooth beacons

Bluetooth beacons will likely play a huge role in the development of such IoT solutions. In time, millions of devices will run for years on small coin cell batteries. Beacons have one simple task: Broadcast a single message repeatedly to any receiving device within its range.

What is a beacon?

  • It acts as a lighthouse, with only one purpose: Send out a repeated signal to all devices within its range field to make devices and apps aware of its presence.
  • It is not aware of itself or any of the surrounding devices
  • It does not connect to any devices
  • It has a unique identifier
  • It is a small hardware device consisting of a Bluetooth IC, antenna and battery
  • It is platform independent, so can transmit to iOS, Android, Windows and Linux devices

Although most beacons are not connected to the Internet today, as more mesh networks and hubs come online, beacons may become capable of sending data to a cloud server themselves. This could help railway stations and other public services to conduct remote maintenance, or to spot beacons that need new batteries or total replacement.

Where are beacons today?

The use of beacons is currently rolled out in the millions worldwide, but you will notice even more beacons are popping up everywhere on a daily basis and it will increase over the coming years. A growing number of apps can take advantage of beacon signals, and we anticipate a lot of useful services will enter the market.

> Read also: How to locate emergency callers with Bluetooth Beacons 

Some brick-and-mortar stores and advanced marketing agencies are early adopters of this technology but now it is getting more common. Among other things, beacons are used to create more personal shopping experiences, with relevant offers and discount coupons made available to customers nearby.

In 2013, Apple launched their iBeacon technology, but it had no support for Android devices. As a response to this, Google rolled out Eddystone, their own cross-platform Bluetooth-based beacon technology.

These technologies could replace and/or complement the GPS/Wi-Fi-based location methods, to notifying you of a late train or prompting a ticket purchase. GPS technology suffers from an additional disadvantage: it does not work in an indoor environment. Adding low cost beacons enables location based services indoor. Another advantage of Bluetooth beacons is their accuracy, making them able to locate devices with an accuracy of a few tens of centimeters.  The low cost of the beacons make them ideal for large deployments and the battery lifetime is typical several years. This together makes it attractive total cost of ownership.

To the next consideration: Privacy issues.

Privacy issues of Bluetooth beacons

This level of location-awareness could make people worry that they are being monitored, or their personal data is at risk. Yet beacons themselves are not intelligent, they are just hardware transmitting a signal. There is no Internet connection and no transfer of data from nearby devices.

Nevertheless, people will worry about their privacy. National legislation may regulate the use of beacons, so in general, explicit opt-in from the end user must remain mandatory when it comes to beacon services. Users need to choose to download the app and give it explicit permission to access their location.

To be successful, beacon services must be so easy to use that anyone can connect to them, which is not always the case with Wi-Fi networks today.

Lately, a new Eddystone beacon format from Google have been launched aimed to increase privacy and security. It is called the Eddystone-EID. The Bluetooth Smart chip from Nordic Semiconductor all have hardware and software in place to avoid that the end consumer being easily tracked.

Ready to get started with your own product?

If you see the exciting possibilities that opens up with the use of beacon technology, this is the perfect time to get started. The beacon technology already exists today, ready for you to take advantage of. In fact, Nordic Semiconductor has already sold millions of chips for beacons.
Are you ready to take the next step?


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Topics: beacons, IoT


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By: Pär Håkansson

Pär Håkansson holds an M.Sc. EE and a Technical Licentiate degree in communication electronics from Linköping University. Pär has extensive engineering experience starting as a RF Application Engineer. He spent the last decade in the low power wireless industry, holding positions in both research and business/marketing. Pär Håkansson joined Nordic Semiconductor in 2015 and currently works as a Strategic marketing manager. He also serves as a board member for the Thread Group.

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