For anyone researching panic buttons, the tech that lives under the hood of those tiny little devices can sometimes be confusing. Sure, they’re based around networks, which almost anyone can grasp, but the underlying functions and features can get lost in a sea of tech jargon and incomprehensible acronyms.
Complicating things further, companies within the market offer and advertise different types of panic buttons that work in different ways—often using varying combinations of hardware and software to offer the functionality required to both meet compliance and drive safer working environments.
A case in point is found within Bluetooth panic buttons. Two of the most common terms you come across to describe panic button functionality are BLE and BLE mesh. Both are based on the original Bluetooth standard but work in different ways to build networks within buildings.
But what’s the difference between these two versions of Bluetooth? And is one better than the other? Here, we explore BLE and BLE mesh in panic button platforms and what the latest developments offer.
Panic Buttons – Why Bluetooth?
Bluetooth was originally introduced to the market back in 2000 as a short-range wireless technology that allowed devices to communicate with each other. Today, you might be most familiar with it as a method to connect your Bluetooth headphones, but its use in panic buttons is now widely considered industry standard.
This is because reporting a call for help and determining the location of an individual indoors poses unique challenges when compared to outdoor environments where GPS and cellular connectivity are used -- both of these standards are not accurate enough to be used in buildings.
In addition to this, they rely on a Wi-Fi or satellite network reaching every corner of the building, plus, they would require the use of smartphones or other devices that use significant power and require greater user input, which is not possible in workplaces (especially in the hospitality) that typically don’t allow their employees to use their smartphones on-the-job.
Bluetooth offers automatic location determination that does not require the user to input their location, and can be set up at low cost using less complex devices that draw lesser power, and offer greater network redundancy.
However, not all Bluetooth panic button devices are created equal, and much depends on the specific version of the technology used, with continuous development over the past 20 years paving the way for BLE and BLE mesh.
BLE vs BLE mesh – What’s the Difference?
BLE and BLE mesh were designed specifically for low-powered devices that are not required to transmit or receive large amounts of data. Panic buttons are the perfect example of this, performing a simple task of communicating a location to another device and subsequently relaying a call for help.
BLE and BLE mesh do this in different ways. Here, we look at the main differences without getting too bogged down in the technical jargon.
- BLE stands for Bluetooth Low Energy, a standard introduced in 2010 that offered reduced energy consumption when compared to the existing Bluetooth standard. Specifically designed for wearables and small sensors that needed to communicate over short distances, such as panic buttons, it allowed for two different connectivity topologies—one-to-one and one-to many.
- BLE mesh builds on top of BLE, offering the same low-power consumption for use in similar applications, however, alongside one-to-one, and one-to-many connectivity, it can also provide many-to-many connectivity—otherwise known as mesh.
The differences between BLE and BLE mesh then, are in the way the Bluetooth protocol speaks to other devices in the network. While this may sound unimportant, it has big implications for the accuracy, reliability, maintenance, and cost of the network—specifically where Bluetooth panic button platforms are concerned! Here’s why.
BLE vs BLE Mesh Panic Buttons – ROAR for Good vs. the Rest!
As you might imagine, sending a help message to a single person is not always effective, but this is exactly what happens with one-to-one BLE. In fact, it’s the equivalent of sending someone an SMS from your smartphone, creating the smallest type of network where only two devices can communicate with each other at any given time. Your message might reach someone who can help, but it might not—certainly not an ideal situation in an emergency.
This is why the majority of today’s Bluetooth panic buttons work with one-to-many BLE. In most cases, this means Bluetooth-based beacon location determination, where Bluetooth beacons that only transmit are placed in all areas that need to be covered. The user then carries a device that receives the transmissions from the beacons, then sends this data to a remote server to determine location based on which beacons were close by.
Unfortunately, this BLE panic button platform has several limitations:
- Both Bluetooth and either Wi-Fi or cellular capabilities are required on the panic buttons to receive the transmissions from the beacons and to send the data over the internet.
- A cellphone is not easily accessible in a moment of panic, not to mention some hotels prohibit housekeepers from carrying their personal phones with them. An additional wearable panic button is often required.
- The building needs 100% Wi-Fi or cellular coverage. Many buildings have dead spots, especially if there is a basement or dense building materials such as concrete.
- The beacons themselves have no connectivity, so if one is stolen, stops working, or the battery dies, there is no way to know which without checking each one individually.
- It has a single point of failure, which means that for systems that rely on Wi-Fi, if the network goes down due to internet or power outage, the system will not work.
- There is no way to hear from the beacon unless an internet connected beacon listening device (mobile phone or tablet) is in range. Which means the beacons could silently die with no warning. Once dead, they are difficult to find.
ROAR for Good considered all of these things while designing its patented technology. Our AlwaysOn platform uses a battery powered BLE mesh network that allows communication between multiple devices and removes the need for smartphones, cellular/Wi-Fi networks, and beacons entirely.
We use BLE mesh nodes that are placed within individual rooms or spaces and that receive transmissions from the user’s wearable device. The mesh nodes are always connected to each other through a mesh network, transmitting the emergency message to the server via a gateway wired to one of the nodes.
This type of Bluetooth panic button platform has a bunch of benefits over and above the current industry standard BLE, including:
- Self-healing system — The network will “heal” and maintain its integrity even if a device is stolen.
- Complete coverage — A single internet connection at a single location means no single node can break the network, offering multiple gateways for redundancy.
- Live network monitoring — The server can monitor the entire system in real time, checking to see if there is a battery running low or a node has gone out so network outages can be prevented or addressed immediately.
- Backup connections as fail safes — Since our BLE mesh send its data to one location as the gateway out to the internet, multiple connections can be set up as fail safes to make sure the system is AlwaysOn 😉, including LTE, Ethernet, and Wi-Fi. We can even support multiple LTE carriers as an additional failsafe.
- Lower costs — Our BLE mesh panic buttons don't require as much hardware because everything is connected. Also, this means our alert devices are smaller and cheaper as they do not need to be Wi-Fi or LTE capable, nor do they need to be paired to a secondary device such as a phone.
- Better security protocols — The security (encryption) on the data being sent over Bluetooth mesh is likely comparable to standard BLE systems. However, in those systems there is effectively a gateway in every room or every user’s pocket, while ours are locked into networking closets. Hence, the potential of a bad actor getting access to our backend data pipeline is significantly reduced.
BLE vs BLE Mesh Panic Buttons — A Simple Analogy
To use an analogy, BLE is simply a wireless communication protocol like radio is to sound. When a company or technology says it is using BLE in its panic buttons, they are simply saying that they use radio (BLE) to transmit a sound (the alert location).
Imagine speakers in a house. Using BLE technology would be like having a speaker in every room but as you go from room to room the sound starts to get distorted and you must manually connect to the speaker in each new room. With BLE Mesh, you can move from room to room with out any interruption or connecting manually because each speaker is passing on the information to one another.
To apply this to a hotel-setting, a standard BLE beacon is a lone person per room (or per two rooms) whispering their name on repeat so that when someone enters, they know what room they are in. Say someone whispers, “Help needed in room 101, room 101, room 101!” If no one enters that room, those whispers go unheard. Now consider your beacon with a dying battery and suddenly the reliability of your Bluetooth panic button network is compromised. With BLE mesh, a robust community is built where everyone is able to communicate with each other at all times without fear of going unheard.
Simple….right? For further information on exactly how our system works, why it’s more effective than others, and to answer any questions you might have, contact a member of the ROAR for Good team today to discuss AlwaysOn and your specific application.