Bluetooth as a Beacon for the Missing?

Thinking about the poor Londoners unable to call their loved ones because of the overloaded cellphone networks on Thursday morning, I wondered whether Bluetooth might help in such incidents in future.

Most cellphones come with Bluetooth now (the number of devices containing Bluetooth doubled last year to 250 million; this figure is expected to double again this year): Is there no way that a connection could be created so cellphone users can transmit urgent messages via Bluetooth to a landline system, via Bluetooth receptors placed at strategic spots in a place that might not be easily accessible, or easy to escape from — say in a tunnel, or tall building? Then, even if the cellphone network is congested, those messages could get thro, perhaps via a central switching station that could monitor the messages as way to build a list of the missing, the victims and the found? These messages could be built in to the fabric of the phone — a sort of panic button — which would try to relay a standard message about the user and her emergency contact numbers, first via SMS, then, if no network signal is available, by Bluetooth to the nearest emergency receptor. This sort of thing isn’t going to work in big open spaces, but it might suit urban spaces and places like subways.

This Bluetooth network could also be used to locate the missing buried under rubble or otherwise not readily reachable. With the network down, emergency services could not use mobile phone signals to locate the missing (indeed, many lines in London do not have any mobile signal, unlike places like Hong Kong and Singapore, although this may change), but Bluetooth signals would not be hampered in this way. (Bluetooth doesn’t require a network to operate, since the connection is from one device to another creating an ‘ad-hoc network’.) Rescue teams armed with powerful Bluetooth transmitters could seek out Bluetooth phones or other devices, the strength of the signal giving some clue about location.

Of course this would require some rethinking of how Bluetooth devices are configured: The devices would have to be given names that might identify the user, and the devices would have to be set to on (and possibly ‘discoverable’ although I guess there’s a way around this hiding aspect of Bluetooth that emergency services could utilise). Both of these elements — identifiable device names, discoverability — are not recommended in this age of Bluesnarfing, but if the Bluetooth SIG could think differently about what Bluetooth is and what it could do — i.e., not just a pairing technology but a limited-range location ‘beacon’ technology — maybe these problems could be overcome.

Of course, Bluetooth as a beacon could be used in different ways — to find ATMs, or your car in a large parking lot, or your children in a crowd. Perhaps this is already being done. And while there’s a good argument for saying Wi-Fi could do all this better, over greater distances, the great thing about Bluetooth is that it’s already in the one device that most people are carrying around with them: Their cellphone.

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