Eleme, which has 83 million monthly active users, is owned by tech giant Alibaba, which also owns Taobao, one of the world’s largest e-commerce platforms. Since launching the new system in more than a hundred cities in China in 2018, Eleme says, it has saved customers $ 8 million in refunds to customers for their delivery-related problems, including delays.
To make it, Elime had to find an affordable system that works indoors. GPS is accurate beyond five meters, but interrupts walls, furniture, and even people’s signals. “It’s really bad at altitude,” said R. Pat Pannuto, Professor of Computer Science at the University of California, San Diego. This is a problem because most of the urban retailers in China are in multi-storey buildings.
Internal localization systems work based on Wi-Fi and radio-frequency identification, but Bluetooth is by far the cheapest, most reliable option. Its accuracy is about 10 meters, enough to detect people walking in a shop or restaurant.
In early 2018, Alibaba installed more than 12,000 Bluetooth beacons in stores across Shanghai. The beacon emits a signal that picks up the driver’s phone in the form of “ID tuples”. The app uploads to the server on each tipple platform, where it matches the merchant ID and logs the system where and when the signal was sent.
Similar networks are widely used to track products, people and services. One of the largest is at Gatwick Airport in London, where about 2,000 Bluetooth beacons are installed. But Eleme’s is one of the first to be built on a city scale.
To take its system to more cities in China, Alibaba has exploited the fact that mobile phones can also act as Bluetooth beacons. Apple introduced this function for iOS devices in 2013 and similar features are now widely available on other smartphones.