Lost in the Supermarket: How Do Location Aware Apps Work?

By: Bradley White | Published: November 6, 2017

What are Location Aware Apps?

“Allow “[insert app name here]” to access your location while you use the app?”, no doubt a familiar notification if you’re one of the world’s 2.3 billion smartphone owners. But why exactly are your apps wanting to know where you are? I can assure you that it’s nothing sinister and Big Brother is not watching you, but rather it’s a creative way for apps to offer features based on your location.

Location based services have been around for a while, but they’ve come a long way since the early days of dodgy SatNavs struggling with the concept of newly built roads – complete with the dreaded cry of “recalculating”. But while navigation is still the most obvious application for location tracking technology, more and more apps from a huge range of industry sectors are embracing the ability to pinpoint a device’s location. Just look at some of the world’s most popular apps and you’ll see that many of them are integrating the technology in interesting ways: Uber, Domino’s Pizza, Google Maps and Pokemon Go are all prime examples of location aware apps.

But before we jump into how location aware apps work let’s clear up what location based services actually are. At its essence, location tracking technology is the ability to pinpoint the geographic position of a mobile device (and by extension, it’s owner). This information can then be used by apps to offer features dependent on the user’s current position. This could be anything from a ‘find your nearest branch’ feature in a banking app to getting a notification when you’re in certain aisle of a shop.

The actual process of pinpointing a user’s current location can be done in a variety of ways, the three most common being through GPS, by using WiFi access points or via Bluetooth beacons. Each of these methods has their own advantages and disadvantages causing them to be suited for different applications.

Bluetooth Beacons

Taking its name from Harald Bluetooth, an obscure reference to a Danish king famed for uniting Denmark and Norway at the end of the 10th century, Bluetooth has likewise been uniting devices since 1998. Since then, Bluetooth has become the go-to technology for device-to-device transfers of data. Many wireless devices, such as speakers, headphones and computer keyboards (including the one I’m using to write this post), use Bluetooth to connect over short distances. More recently, Bluetooth has found a use in location tracking, with Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons being used to pinpoint a device’s location.

Advantages of Bluetooth beacons:

  • Long battery life (potentially up to 3 years)
  • High level of accuracy
  • Ideal for indoor navigation situations (airports, museums and shopping centres)

Disadvantages of Bluetooth beacons:

  • Short range (roughly 70 meters)
  • Positioning is less accurate the further a device is from the beacon
  • Not ideal for outdoor environments
Mobile Navigation App in use

GPS

GPS is a term that we hear regularly in regards to navigation technology, but what exactly is it? GPS (Global Positioning System) depends on a constellation of 30+ satellites which are currently orbiting the planet, meaning that at least a handful of these satellites should be visible at any point on Earth at any given time. Your phone contains a GPS receiver which allows it to pick up the signal that these satellites are constantly emitting. By calculating the time taken for the signal of at least three different satellites to reach the device the GPS receiver can calculate the latitude and longitude using a process called ‘trilateration’, giving the user their current position.

Advantages of GPS:

  • Unlimited range
  • Network is already set up
  • Perfect for outdoor location tracking

Disadvantages of GPS:

  • Not as accurate as BLE beacons or WPS
  • Drains device battery quickly
  • Not suitable for indoor location tracking as obstructions disrupt the signal

The biggest downside to GPS is the fact that obstructions between the satellite and the receiver can disrupt the signal. This is why your SatNav isn’t much use when you enter a tunnel or an underground car park. Compared to other methods of mobile location tracking, GPS doesn’t quite have the same level of accuracy, although its unlimited range, makes GPS great for navigation over larger areas.

WiFi Positioning

The final method commonly used by location aware apps is through using WiFi access points, taking the signal from several access points and using ‘trilateration’ to calculate the device’s position, just like GPS. The use of WiFi for location tracking technology is known as WPS (WiFi Positioning System). WPS has become a viable alternative in situations where GPS is weak or unreliable, such as indoor locations or underground.

Advantages of WPS:

  • Can be used with a pre-existing WiFi infrastructure
  • Good accuracy makes it suited for indoor location tracking

Disadvantages of WPS:

  • Inferior range and accuracy compared to BLE beacons
  • Metal and glass can interfere with the signal
  • More expensive to install than BLE beacons

Arriving at Destination on Left

Location aware apps have certainly come a long way since being used for just navigation, with the applications of location based services being relevant to a broad range of industries – whether that’s gaming, emergency services, retail or transport. GPS, Bluetooth beacons and WPS has created innovative opportunities for countless companies and has allowed them to stay ahead of the curve so, if you haven’t already, take a moment to consider how a location aware app could benefit your business.

At BMDI Software, we have experience of implementing location tracking technology in a range of different industries, from guiding shoppers along the quickest route to their chosen store at Mall of America to helping London’s Air Ambulance get to critically injured people faster. Contact us today and our solution designers will explain how your business can capitalise on new opportunities using location-based technologies.