Troubleshooting Gimbal Beacon Signals

10. September 2016 Beacons 0

Introduction

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Recently I received a few emails concerning Gimbal beacon problems, specifically related to their signals. It seems that sometimes the signals coming from the beacons are sporadic or the beacons aren’t detected at all for several minutes, nowhere consistent enough to be used in production. I’ve personally run into this situation in the past as well and can definitely tell you it requires a lot of trial and error and tuning. You are definitely going to get a workout walking around and testing things you’ve tweaked.

As a public service I’m going to share my findings on troubleshooting Gimbal beacon signals and how to put any of these issues to rest. It may not be easy but in time and through trial and error you should be able to solve these problems. Keep in mind this article will help you troubleshoot issues with beacon signals but concepts such as Arrivals, Departures, etc. are contextually different from signals themselves. Because of this, they are in a different domain of troubleshooting which isn’t covered here.

Variables Affecting Beacon Signals

Before getting into any troubleshooting it’s important to understand exactly what can affect beacon signals. Remember, beacons use Bluetooth Low Energy or BLE. These signals much like the signal of WiFi become degraded based on distance, building materials, signal pollution, etc. Below is a list of items that are common pain points.

  1. Smoothing Window – This is a parameter that can be set in the Gimbal Manager, a dashboard specifically for developers. I’d imagine you are aware of it if you are even reading this article. Regardless, this is an often overlooked setting which can greatly affect the behavior of your beacon signals, specifically related to beacon sightings. As I mentioned in a previous article, depending on the value chosen for this setting, the signals reported in sightings will be smoothed to make them less jumpy so as to not falsely trip an arrival or departure.

    The smoothing algorithm processes RSSI signal strengths from sightings to make them less jumpy. The larger the smoothing window the more steady the output RSSI readings will be. – Gimbal REST Documentation

  2. Battery Level – Believe it or not, if a beacon’s battery is starting to go the way of the Dodo, then it can cause all sorts of problems. Sometimes you’ll see the signals, sometimes you will not. Usually the beacons are intelligent enough via the SDK and Gimbal Manager to warn you of low battery levels. However, if you don’t get these warnings and all appears well with the battery, that doesn’t necessarily mean the battery isn’t the culprit.Also, keep in mind if the type of beacon you use doesn’t require a battery then this is one area you shouldn’t be concerned with (other than a constant power source, of course). Gimbal’s U-Series 5 shown below is a great example of a beacon without a battery.
    Gimbal U-Series 5 Beacon
    Gimbal U-Series 5 Beacon
  3. Building Material Interference – Just like WiFi, beacons can become a victim of building materials interfering with their signals. Good examples of materials that don’t play nice with beacons are concrete, metal, and plaster. Apple has a great article on this that I suggest you read as it will really expand your knowledge on this subject significantly. In addition to these building materials, signal pollution can come from various sources such as microwaves, cordless phones, and even wireless speakers.
  4. Beacon Location – This one may be a no brainer or labeled as blinding flash of the obvious. However, sometimes having unrealistic expectations of distances that a beacon signal can be detected is a problem. Remember, these devices have shorter ranges than regular WiFi, most being up to 50 meters. Check the documentation or manual for your beacons to find out the realistic range.
  5. Phone Hardware/OS – If you have phone hardware that isn’t working properly such its Bluetooth functionality, OS problems due to bugs, or unpatched software, that could be a potential source of problems. If you have an Android phone running a custom ROM like Cyanogenmod then depending on the stability of the build you are running, problems could be vast or sparse.

Troubleshooting Steps

Like all problems that require fixing, you have to start someplace. This is a situation of trial and error and the process of elimination. I’d recommend trying the following in order until you resolve your issue.

Check the Smoothing Window

If someone changed the settings for the smoothing window then this could be a huge issue. To figure this out, login to Gimbal Manager and then click on the Applications link in the left menu. Find the applicable application in the list and click on the Edit icon. From there you’ll be taken to the application detail page. Click on the Advanced Configuration link.

From here, pay attention to the setting for the Smoothing Window. If it is too high then as part of your troubleshooting you’ll want to reduce it. You may have to keep reducing it down until eventually it’s set to None to figure out if the smoothing window is the problem. Also, if you are having problems with Arrivals and Departures then you can tweak those settings here as well.

Important: According to Gimbal, changing these settings may take up to 24 hours to sync with existing instances of the SDK. This is extremely important to understand as you are likely going to have to wait to verify your new settings worked.

In addition, I highly recommend reading this Gimbal article about RSSI as Gimbal explains that location accuracy diminishes the further away from the beacon you get.

Note: Finding the signal smoothing settings page in the Gimbal Manager may require different steps, depending on whether or not Gimbal changes the UI in the future. As of the date of this writing, the above instructions should work.

Replace the Batteries

If the beacons you use have batteries then as a peace of mind I suggest replacing all of their batteries. This may potentially be a lot of work but it could save you a lot of time if the batteries are the problem. Remember, time is money and wasted time may be much more expensive than the cost of batteries. Granted, this is a case by case basis but it’s certainly something to think about.

I can say that when I received my beacons (Gimbal Series 10) that I had to replace the batteries immediately even though they already came with batteries. I had all sorts of problems with beacons being detected and then not being detected. I replaced the batteries and the problem cleared up right away.

Check Your Building’s Materials

As mentioned previously, the types of building materials (don’t forget signal pollution as well) can affect the quality of your beacon signals. If you find out you are in a building that has materials that can adversely affect your beacon signals, then it’s time to move to a new building, room, etc. This could certainly affect your production plans but if you are just in a prototyping or proof of concept phase then this shouldn’t be a big deal.

Set Proper Beacon Distance Expectations

Beacons usually have a range of around 50 meters. If you are outside this range then you likely won’t get any signals. Different beacons have different ranges so always check the manual or documentation. Just ensure the proper range expectations have been set prior to testing or developing. If you made an unfortunate assumption about the range then you could be troubleshooting the signal problem for hours just to later find out you were out of range.

Check Your Phone

If the phone you are using has faulty hardware or software, you could run into all sorts of weird problems. I had this problem myself on one of the phones I was using for testing. Once I swapped out that phone the problem went away. Make sure all of the software on your phone is up to date as well. I also don’t recommend custom ROMs as the quality of these may not be the exact same as the phone manufacturer. In other words, using a custom ROM may give varied results so just keep that in mind. However, some devices may require a custom ROM depending on the circumstances.

Conclusion

Troubleshooting Gimbal beacon signals can be time consuming and rather tedious but it’s par for the course. This problem isn’t specific to Gimbal but rather it’s specific to the technology. You will run into similar issues with other beacon manufacturers. I personally think Gimbal offers a great product and they’ve done a great job updating their SDK and provide you with a fantastic developer dashboard to manage your beacons. It’s very important to understand how beacon technology works and to establish the proper expectations. Hopefully by following the advice in this article you have solved or better understood some of your problems.

Daniel Eagle

Currently residing in the Austin area, Daniel Eagle is an avid gamer, writer, technology/science enthusiast, software developer, and educator. He takes great pride in spreading knowledge and helping others.

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