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Navigation Beacon Collaboration Pays Off in Chicago

More than 450 tiny Bluetooth beacons make navigating Chicago's underground streets a snap.

What started as a solution to help drivers find their parking location in downtown Chicago could be the answer to navigating other areas like multilevel highways, tunnels or possibly even areas removed from any hint of cell service.

A recent partnership among Waze, SpotHero and the Chicago Department of Transportation installed more than 450 Bluetooth beacons along five miles of underground roadways in downtown Chicago. The system is allowing drivers who use the Waze app to find their way in an area where GPS signals generally go dark.

The issue first became irksome for the operators of SpotHero, a Chicago-based company that connects drivers to parking garages, lots and valet stands nationwide via its mobile app.

“We had drivers, in Chicago specifically, who looked for parking in downtown Chicago. They would find the parking. They would book the parking. And then, they would try to get there; and one of the challenges that they ran into when they tried to get there is — they would rely on their favorite GPS, whether that be Waze or Google Maps, or Apple Maps — and for a dozen or so garages in downtown Chicago that are only accessible via a lower road, the GPS didn’t work. They couldn't find it [the garage],” explained Elan Mosbacher, senior vice-president for strategy and operations at SpotHero.

For anyone not familiar with driving in downtown Chicago, the city has several miles of multilevel streets, with some running underground. And often, parking structures are accessed from these subterranean roadways. However, navigation apps like Waze, which depend on a connection to GPS, quickly lose their way in the multilevel honeycomb of roadways, parking areas and delivery zones.

“City crews installed [the beacons] on five miles of these underground roadways — the main ones being Lower Wacker Drive, Lower Columbus, and Lower Michigan Avenue. People use them as through routes and also for access to parking as well as deliveries,” said Mike Claffey, director of public affairs at the Chicago Department of Transportation.

By connecting the streets with Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons, which use much less power than conventional Bluetooth technology while providing the same level of connectivity, spaced every 100 feet, navigation apps can operate underground just as they would on the open road. SpotHero paid for the cost of the hardware, Waze provided the technology and the city provided the regulatory approvals and the installation of the equipment.

“I would note that the beacons do not collect data. They emit a signal that aids in GPS navigation,” said Claffey.

The technology could just as well be put to use in tunnels, like the project in Boston, where hundreds of the beacons — which cost about $30 each — are helping guide motorists through miles of subsurface roadways.

“There are definitely other applications that this could be applied to,” said Mosbacher.

The Waze Beacons Program has also outfitted roadways in Pittsburgh, Pa., along with international locations in Brazil, Italy, France and others.

“The benefits of seamless navigation can now be enjoyed underground by Waze users,” said Gil Disatnik, head of the Waze Beacons Program, in a statement. “Waze Beacons technology is open and free to use by any other navigation app should they choose to, furthering Waze's goal of empowering everyone to outsmart traffic together.”

The network in Chicago went live in early September. And so far, drivers are finding their parking structures and other locations, said Mosbacher.

“The feedback has been tremendous from the city and from Waze, and from the parking operators, that we partner with that have been impacted,” he added. “Early indications look very good.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.