World premiere: large scale iBeacons network guides visually impaired people to use the public transportation service
An initial fleet of 40 Enterprise iBeacons was installed in late May 2015 by the Onyx Beacon technical team on all buses and trolleybuses circulating in Bucharest, Romania on two public transport lines. This moment marks the first phase of deployment in real field conditions for the Smart Public Transport project, an integrated technological solution created by Onyx Beacon.
The solution will use an infrastructure of 500 iBeacons and will guide people with visual disabilities to independently use the public transport network in the Romanian capital area, without having a personal assistant, and without relying on other passengers or the transportation company personnel.
Bucharest is the first city in the world to officially develop a large-scale technological solution for independent guidance and orientation of the visually-impaired people within the public transport network. The Smart Public Transport (SPT) solution designed and delivered by Onyx Beacon is the first in the world to exceed the experimental stage, being based on Bluetooth Low Energy hardware units, and managed by a cloud-based platform that communicates effectively and interactively with mobile devices via a dedicated application that works simultaneously on iOS and Android operating systems.
What is „Smart Public Transport”?
Smart Public Transport is an integrated solution delivering multimedia notifications and guiding the access to the transportation vehicles. The mobile application helps users to configurate custom complex routes within the public transport infrastructure in Bucharest and will be accessible free of charge to all RATB passengers. According to official statistics, in Bucharest over 7000 people are registered as visually-impaired, but if we add the officially unregistered people with the same disabilities, those in transit, and those having orientation or visibility difficulties, the actual number of projects’ direct beneficiaries could reach 12,000.
The Smart Public Transport project is based on iBeacon BLE technology and is developed by the Onyx Beacon team, in partnership with Tandem Association, representing the visually-impaired people in Bucharest and with RATB, the Public Transport Company in Bucharest. The project is supported by the Vodafone Romania Foundation and includes the installation of a total of 500 iBeacons placed on public transport vehicles, covering the most frequented urban transport lines. People with visual disabilities will be able to reach by bus all the main public areas of Bucharest and the SPT mobile application will help them to easily find all the connections for moving roundtrip to any point of interest in the Romanian capital.
Firts Enterprise iBeacon installed on a bus in Bucharest by Marius Mornea, CTO Onyx Beacon
Smart Public Transport is one of the eight projects selected for funding by Vodafone Romania Foundation in 2015 in the “Mobile for Good” program, which encourages the use of technology for social communitary causes and for solving specific problems of citizens who need real support for special personal needs. The project was officially public launched by Vodafone Foundation on May 28, in Bucharest, at the Technology for Social Change conference.
Mister Ravinder Takkar, CEO Vodafone Romania, speaking at the Technology for Social Change conference
How exactly the SPT solution works?
The SPT solution is based on the transfer of information and interaction between three entities: the hardware components (iBeacons mounted on RATB buses and trolleybuses), the Onyx Beacon CMS cloud platform and the smartphones and mobile devices owned by users, having a dedicated mobile application installed. All communication process is coordinated by the Onyx Beacon Content Management System, which receives real-time data from users’ smartphones that communicate with the iBeacons when they appear in the specified range.
The functional process, seen from the perspective of the user, follows these steps:
- The user leaves from home after setting the mobile application to follow the bus lines that are covering the route he wants to move on. The user’s smartphone has the Bluetooth Low Energy option enabled and data traffic access.
- The bus (equipped with a uniquely identified iBeacon) approaches the station where the user is already waiting. The iBeacon installed on the bus continuously emits a Bluetooth Low Energy signal, at a steady standard frequency.
- When the vehicle is approaching at a distance of 50-60 meters (depending on the architecture of the area), the user’s mobile phone receives a notification saying that the wanted bus is coming. The notification is delivered with a specific audio signal and the voice-over application on the phone reads the notification’s text to the user.
- When the bus arrives in the station, the iBeacon’s buzzer will repeatedly broadcast a Beep signal, knowing from the mobile application and the cloud platform that a passenger interested in that bus line is in the station. Thus, the user can precisely identify the desired bus, if more vehicles arrive simultaneously in the same station.
- After the user goes on the bus, notifications and buzzer sound signals will automatically stop. The process repeats when the person reaches another bus station and notifies the application that he expects a vehicle from another transit line.
Florin Georgescu, director of Tandem Association, himself a visually-impaired person, testing the SPT solution in its first day of official operation
The project, from the initial idea to full deployment
The Smart Public Transport project started in January 2015, when representatives of the Tandem Association and Onyx Beacon meet for the first time, imagined and designed together the main functionalities and the technical solution details. The next step was the prototype of the mobile application, followed by multiple tests of the entire system in laboratory conditions. The projects’ idea was submitted in a competition of social projects implemented by NGOs and was enthusiastically embraced by Vodafone Foundation, which decided to finance this generous social idea. A positive response and an extremely efficient technical support was received very quickly also from the public transport company in Bucharest, which become an essential and trustful partner of the project.
In the first phase of deployment, during from June to August 2015 and involving all public transport vehicles on routes 86 and 90, the solution will be tested in real field conditions by a team of volunteers from the Tandem Association. Both bus lines have stations in the vecinity of the special high-school for visually-impaired people, so a large number of testers will have the opportunity to intensively use the two bus lines that are covered in the pilot phase and to deliver a significant amount of information about the user’s experience. In parallel, the Onyx Beacon team will work on completing the technical solution capabilities and improving system’s overall performance.
The Tandem Association director, in his first trolley trip guided by an iBeacon device
Observations, comments and ideas of improvement collected from all project partners will be integrated in the next period in order to provide full functionality of the solution and to deliver a useful and accurate experience to the real beneficiaries. At the end of August 2015 the integrated solution will be ready for full implementation, all the 500 iBeacon devices will be finally placed on the RATB vehicles and the complete versions of the mobile application for iOS and Android will be freely accessible to the public. Since the beginning of September the entire system will be fully operational and by the end of the year a communication campaign will be conducted to inform potential users about the functionalities and benefits of the SPT solution.
The strongest iBeacon on the market, specially designed for this project
When starting the Smart Public Transport Project, the Onyx Beacon team has set as a priority the development of an iBeacon model able to meet all the specific requirements of this use case, but, at the same time, reliable and capable to successfully cover a multitude of other use cases, in various industries. The central idea was to create a device that can be used outdoors, in any climate conditions and which will have very low maintenance costs, ie to have a long-term energy autonomy. 99% of ordinary iBeacon models on the market are designed for use inside buildings in protected environments and have a battery life of maximum 12 months.
Based on these fundamental requirements, Enterprise Beacon is built to operate in outdoors environmental conditions in any usual urban area on the planet, having a waterproof enclosure and energy autonomy of up to 4 years (therefore, very low maintenance costs). The beacon can be alternatively powered directly from an AC power source of 220 volts or through a USB connection. The Bluetooth Low Energy signal of the Enterprise model can be received at a distance of up to 70 meters in open space. Enterprise Beacon is provided with a double fixing system: by 4 screws using the specially provided holes on the case or by double-sided heavy duty tape, model VHB produced by the market leader 3M.
Enterprise is the only beacon in its category equipped with buzzer, which was a technical feature specifically implemented for this project. By broadcasting a powerful sound signal to reach the bus station, the integrated buzzer provides a secondary communication channel for the user, in addition to the information supplied via the installed application on the mobile phone. The buzzer consistently helps the correct orientation of the user when the bus station is overcrowded and multiple vehicles arrive in place.
Enterprise Beacon – essential technical description
Since its launch in March 2015, Enterprise has already received a software upgrade and hardware configuration improvements, after tests performed by the Onyx Beacon’ s developers and clients in real world conditions. More improvements and innovations are expected to be made in the next period, after weekly evaluations of use in the public transport system in Bucharest. Enterprise Beacon is already widely tested and implemented by Onyx Beacon’s customers, covering various use cases like industrial, hospitality and public events environments or outdoors inaccessible locations where maintenance is difficult.
The SPT solution, previously tested in a city park
Before proceeding with the first phase of project implementation in real world conditions, the Onyx Beacon team conducted a solution test in outdoors conditions, simulating the most common situations that may be encountered in reality. Our team members went to the park near the offices and simulated the application’s use by some fictitious beneficiaries, represented by some of our programmers.
Two colleagues riding bicycles were playing the buses’ role, moving on certain routes and arriving at the designated stations. Other team members carefully monitored all records delivered by the iBeacon infrastructure to the Onyx CMS cloud platform and noted the problems to be fixed and the useful identified solutions. The story about this test can be found on our blog.
What’s next fot the Smart Public Transport solution?
Within the next three months, our team and our partners from the Tandem Association will focus on testing the integrated system under real conditions. We will collect valuable observations and ideas of optimization, in order to deliver functionality enhancements and fine tuning that will prove useful. The feedback received in the first three days of operation from users already testing the solution is very encouraging and confirms that all components are fully integrated and precisely delivering all the expected information and projected users’ benefits.
Starting from September 2015, the solution will be completely implemented, fully operational and freely available to all users in Bucharest. The Tandem Association plans to convince project sponsors to support the extension of this project in all major cities in Romania, in partnership with local associations of visually-impaired people and local authorities. Based on the experiences, processes and techniques already acquired through this implementation phase in Bucharest, the Smart Public Transport project can be replicated easily and quickly in any city where public surface transportation system is functional.
Meanwhile, Onyx Beacon team is already in contact with national or regional associations of people having visual disabilities and public transport companies in several major cities around the world. The interest in this project is a major one, and the success of the project developed as a world premiere in Bucharest will certainly lead to further widespread implementation of this solution in all countries where there are real concerns for the accessibility of public spaces for categories of users with special needs.